By Msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/28/2008 1:57:04 PM ET 2008-09-28T17:57:04

As Friday's debate fades from the collective memory of the American people, the nominees' chief strategists appeared on "Meet The Press" to continue the spirited discussion.

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According to Steve Schmidt, John McCain's chief strategist, the first presidential debate was an encounter between a seasoned, savvy leader and a naive newcomer. David Axelrod, Barack Obama's chief strategist, offered a far different interpretation of events. According to Axelrod, the debate was between "Bush 3" and a bold, original thinker who is from — and for — the middle class. Against the backdrop of a spectacular economic crisis, the clash of strategists was in keeping with the drama that has kept the nation in suspense as the election's finale looms.

Schmidt fought hard to redraw the lingering impression that John McCain suspended his campaign and traveled to Washington only for political gain. Portraying McCain as the balm that soothed the open wound of panic, Schmidt credited his boss as the "authentic leader" who "brought all the parties to the table ... put together a coalition ... and laid out the principles" of the bailout plan. In contrast, he called Democratic nominee Barack Obama "a great talker," but someone who lacks the personal contacts and Beltway influence of McCain.

In comparison, Axelrod painted Barack Obama as the calm leader who spent the past week in contact with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and leaders of Congress. When pressed by moderator Tom Brokaw to name one program Obama would cut in the wake of the bailout's economic impact, Axelrod sidestepped naming any major programs but claimed that the candidate would be "flinty-eyed" and "look at the budget, line by line, and get rid of things that don't work."

Along with the bailout plan, the war in Iraq was the subject of intense debate. Schmidt credited McCain for standing up to President Bush in calling for the firing of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and insisted that the country is "on the edge of winning" in Iraq. Axelrod claimed that with Iraq sitting on a $79 billion surplus, Osama bin Laden still on the loose, and a reconstituted enemy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the country couldn't afford more of the same policies initiated by President Bush.

Clinton offers praise for Obama
After the strategists exited, it was former President Bill Clinton who offered a more nuanced picture of the current political landscape, suggesting that the long-term benefits of the financial crisis outweighed the short-term instability for the average American. "People now recognize, all over again, what they had to learn in the depression...markets, if unaccountable at the margins, will self-destruct. They will cannibalize themselves."

Clinton also had some words of advice for Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden ahead of his debate with GOP counterpart Sarah Palin. According to Clinton, Biden needs to emphasize that "Barack Obama selected [him] because no one has more experience or better judgment in the area of foreign policy."

Clinton continued, explaining that Biden could make a convincing case for the Democratic ticket without having to attack his opponent. Undecided voters "like John McCain, and they like [Palin]. But they will move [away] from her if she comes off as too conservative. I don't think he has to whack her .... The people who don't like her aren't the ones sitting on the fence."

Brokaw also inquired about President Clinton's personal feelings toward Obama — the man who defeated his wife in a protracted primary race. Crediting Obama with "a remarkable ability to learn and grow," he praised the candidate for fine-tuning his policies on health care and energy while demonstrating good instincts in a time that desperately calls for them.

When asked if he thought Obama was a "great man", he was reflective, saying, "I had my first conversation with him in my entire lifeHarlem [a few weeks ago]," he said. "You'd never talked to him before that meeting?" Brokaw asked incredulously. "Only in passing," Clinton said. "I certainly admire him. He has the potential to be a great man, but he hasn't reached it yet. He would probably agree with me."

Explaining that Obama's lengthy list of accomplishments has, until now, been personal achievements, Clinton stressed a looming change in agenda if Obama succeeds in winning the presidency. "When he becomes president, he'll be doing things for the American people.... I think that's what I very much believe is going to happen," he stated, adding, "I'm going to do my very best to do every single thing he asks me to do."

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