As Barack Obama and John McCain get ready to square off in the second of three presidential debates, here are five things that you should keep an eye on as the evening unfolds. Town hall debates more than any other format rewards or punishes candidates based on personality and answers. The candidates better be ready to answer questions tonight.
1). The Personal Touch – Town hall debates are different from other formats because of audience interaction both in the venue and on television. Candidates aren’t only evaluated on their answers, but how well they connect with the audience member who asks the questions. Candidates who seem distant, cold, or evasive are judged poorly. The one thing that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have in common is the ability to establish a one to one connection with the audience.
The John McCain of 2000 also had this gift, but McCain 2008 has been heavily scripted and insulated. Gone from his campaign is the personality and self-depreciating humor that made him adept at this format. Obama has developed more of a personal touch in the fall campaign, and has the added bonus of being more charismatic and likable than McCain. If Obama can show more of a personal touch with the audience, he will have a very good night.
2). Issues vs. Character – I think those of you who are expecting John McCain to keep the character attacks could be in for a disappointment tonight. Despite labeling themselves a campaign of mavericks, McCain and Palin have settled into very traditional roles. Palin is the attack dog, and I suspect that McCain will try to stay above the fray. I think that he will focus on his own biography and play himself up as a leader in this time of crisis. Things might get testy, but this format does not lend itself well to character attack politics.
The format does favor issues, and this is Obama’s strength. I expect Obama to hammer home the message that he is the candidate best equipped to deal with this economy over and over again tonight. In answer to economic questions, you should look for Obama to talk about how his policies would help people. McCain had better come prepared to talk about issues and specifics tonight, or his is going to be in for a really long evening. McCain will probably talk about character, judgment and taxes. For Obama, tonight will be all about the economy.
3). Answer The Question – The strategy of the McCain/Palin campaign has been to avoid answering questions that don’t concern their strengths by changing the subject. If McCain tries to do this tonight, he will not only lose the debate, but may also put the final nail in his own presidential campaign. McCain needs to be honest and direct, especially on the economy. It is time for him to put the talking points away and talk policy. If the Republican sticks to character and avoids policy, he will lose this debate.
To his credit, Obama answers questions, but his weakness is that sometimes his answers sound a bit academic and detached. I think that Obama will go straight for the middle class tonight. The wild card here is moderator Tom Brokaw. If Brokaw decides not to let Obama or McCain avoid answering the questions by pressing them and following up, then this benefits Obama, because McCain won’t be allowed to pass off generalities for answers. Obama has become the candidate of straight talk in this race, and I would expect that Obama will do more of the same tonight.
4). The Unexpected Question – In these town hall debates there always seems to be at least one unanticipated question. Whatever this question might be, it represents the biggest danger to each of these candidates. McCain gets into trouble when he speaks off the cuff, and one surprise question could be all it takes for McCain to fall into the big gaffe. Obama is more disciplined, and far less likely to make the big mistake, but the potential is there for both candidates to drop the ball.
An advantage that Obama has tonight is that both candidates will be facing an undecided audience. He has been through this before when he debated Hillary Clinton in similar formats during the primaries. In contrast, McCain hasn’t faced a town hall style audience that wasn’t hand picked and full of supporters. The questions that McCain will be asked tonight will be tougher than anything that he has faced this year. This format represents more of a challenge for McCain than many pundits are giving it credit for.
5). Obama As The Leader – In the first debate, Obama needed to look presidential, but in this debate Obama is leading the race, and he needs to look ready to lead the country. Time is running out for McCain, and his campaign is on a real slide. He needs to reverse this decline, and get himself back into the race. I doubt that there is anything that McCain can do to get into the lead, but he can use this debate to close the gap.
McCain will be desperate and aggressive, but Obama can not allow himself to become too passive. I believe that both candidates will be aggressive tonight. The interesting thing to watch will be how Obama handles being the leader in this race. Everything is trending Obama’s way right now, so he has the choice of either protecting his lead or trying to put McCain away. McCain could try to make things ugly if he is having a bad debate, but all Obama needs to do is stick to the economy, and he will be fine.