Format of Tuesday’s debate puts voters seeking answers in control

[6 October 2008]

By Bill Lambrecht

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

WASHINGTON—Presidential candidates meeting Tuesday night for their second of three debates will face a new master—an audience that may demand answers rather than theatrics or attacks.

In a different format than viewers have seen this season, questions will originate from the audience at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and on the Internet. Neither the questioners nor moderator Tom Brokaw can ask follow-ups.

Tuesday night will be the closest voters get to speaking directly to candidates this election in a debate occurring at a critical juncture with a burning question: How aggressive will John McCain be trying in trying to reverse his declining fortunes?

Following his poll-plunge corresponding with the timing of the latest economic downturn, the Arizona senator trailed Barack Obama in national polls beyond error margins and has fallen behind in some battleground states.

After Tuesday, McCain and Obama will debate one last time at Hofstra University Oct. 15, where five-minute discussion periods in a format that could test candidates’ skills in verbal combat as well as their restraint.

For McCain, the question Tuesday night will be whether to continue his new hard-edged campaign of recent days featuring running mate Sarah Palin’s charge that Obama “pals around with terrorists” given his Chicago associations. A similar tact by McCain could be risky.

“It’s very hard to be nasty and mean in a venue where you’re expected to be nice and empathetic,” said Allan Louden, a communications professor at Wake Forest University and co-founder of the blog.

While Tuesday’s format is far from freewheeling, it is a time when candidates talk directly to voters expecting answers to real-life questions.

In these times especially, questioners may want presidential hopefuls who understand their predicaments rather than candidates who display the sort of back-and-forth fireworks that a hot McCain could set off.

Louden said he believes that McCain “is bound by the audience and of necessity by politeness and civility. He may be angry beneath the surface, but if he goes there in the debate, that will become the story.”

Debate expert David Lanoue, chairman of political science at the University of Alabama, said it’s important for McCain to display an even temperament just as Obama must guard against overreacting.

“They have warned that it’s going to get nasty. It has gotten nasty. Barack Obama needs to show that it hasn’t gotten under his skin. Being called someone who pals around with terrorists is pretty rough stuff. That wasn’t even said about John Kerry,” said Lanoue, author of “The Joint Press Conference: The History, Impact, and Prospects of American Presidential Debates.”

By some accounts, McCain is at his best in the conversational style of town hall debates; he tried without success to interest Obama in more of them. Tuesday night’s format suits him so well that he could use it to take some risks, observed Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Given where he is, insofar as he’s got a safe course and a risky course, he’s got to take the risky course,” said Gaines. “Whether that means engaging Obama directly, I don’t know—but he needs to break away and speak from the heart.”

With the election a month from Tuesday, neither candidate can afford a gaffe just as each must convey to the televised audience that they feel questioners’ pains. They surely want to do a better job of answering a question on the economy than then-President George H.W. Bush did in 1992 in the town hall presidential debate in Richmond.

After a woman asked Bush, challenger Bill Clinton and third-party candidate Ross Perot how the national debt “had affected each of their lives,” this is part of what followed.

BUSH: Well, I think the national debt affects everybody.

QUESTIONER: You personally.

BUSH: Obviously it has a lot to do with interest rates.

MODERATOR: She’s saying, you personally.

QUESTIONER: You, on a personal basis—how has it affected you?

BUSH: I’m sure it has. I love my grandchildren.

QUESTIONER: “How” has it affected you?

BUSH: I want to think that they’re going to be able to afford an education. I think that that’s an important part of being a parent. If the question—maybe I—get it wrong. Are you suggesting that if somebody has means that the national debt doesn’t affect them? I’m not sure I get—help me with the question and I’ll try to answer it.

QUESTIONER: Well, I’ve had friends that have been laid off from jobs.

BUSH: Yeah.

Bush’s performance that night fed perceptions that he was out of touch with the economy, a chief reason he lost to Clinton three weeks later.

Whatever their demeanor, candidates might need to put on a show Tuesday night if they have hopes of matching the viewership vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden received when they took the stage in St. Louis last week. Nearly 70 million watched—a third more than watched the first presidential debate, which took place on a Friday night.

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