When John McCain and Barack Obama face off this evening in the second of three presidential debates, it will be like nothing we've seen before in this campaign season. For 90 minutes, the television tit-for-tat, the rapid-response surrogate operations, and the e-mail alerts and reminders will take a back seat in what is sure to be an interesting town hall gathering. This theater in the round at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., which begins at 9 p.m. Eastern time, will give viewers across the country a unique chance to "lift the hood and kick the tires," as Obama is fond of saying.
John McCain can't afford to fail. He is trailing in the polls, and time is growing short. Yesterday, NBC News pollsters spotted Obama nearly 100 electoral votes—the widest margin to date—and the trend lines in national tracking polls have been solidly moving in Obama's favor for the past 10 days. The McCain camp recently pulled resources from Michigan, a crucial state won by John Kerry in 2004 and one about which Democrats had privately worried. In all but conceding Michigan, the McCain campaign narrowed the playing field to the tough battlegrounds of Colorado, Virginia, Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio—all of which, if recent polling is accurate, narrowly favor Obama.
Outspent on the air, outflanked on the ground, Team McCain is suddenly playing defense in North Carolina and shoring up a set of counties in Nebraska. Talk about an October surprise.
And McCain has to do well not only because he's down, but also because this is the format he's been pushing for months. He even pumped up the stakes when, upon being accused on "The View" of playing dirtball, he reasoned that if Obama had agreed to participate in a series of 10 town-hall meetings, as McCain had proposed, the whole presidential campaign would have been a less acrimonious affair.
McCain has pushed hard for the dueling-banjos format and has criticized Obama for ducking the challenge. Obama rejected the idea when it was proposed in June, and, for better or worse, this has had the effect of raising expectations for McCain. This is supposed to be John McCain's turf. Voters will be tuning in to watch him work the town-hall magic they've heard so much about.
While the McCain camp believes the format favors their candidate—it provides unscripted moments in which he is said to shine—there's no real reason to think that all the advantages will accrue to the Republican. First, Obama has plenty of experience in a town-hall setting; he has held dozens over the many months of his campaign. And second, despite the format, the policy terrain remains very difficult for McCain.
One has only to look at the ads that both campaigns unfurled this week. Leading Obama's strategy: more specifics on his health care proposal, bound up with a new critique of McCain's plans for Medicare and a big policy speech in Charlottesville, Va., on Sunday. Meanwhile, McCain's new ads reprise the viral e-mail riddle of "Who is Barack Obama?" as well as the renewed efforts of his running mate, Sarah Palin, to link the Democrat to '60s radical William Ayers.
Of course, Obama's new video retelling McCain's involvement in the Keating Five scandal, coupled with new divisions within the McCain-Palin ticket over the political relevance of Obama's relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, will be an irresistible backdrop during the forum.
Both candidates need to watch their steps. They should be wary of seeming to avoid voters' questions or too eager to pivot to canned talking points and personal attacks.
But while McCain favors a town hall setting, the topics most likely to come up tonight don't play to his strength. The campaign—once entirely about the Iraq war—is now focused on the woeful state of the American economy. Polling suggests that Obama enjoys a double-digit advantage when it comes to whom voters trust to sort out the economic turmoil. A recent study of issue preferences suggests nearly 60 percent of voters chose the economy as the most important issue facing the nation, followed by domestic issues such as health care, education and the environment, with terrorism, Russia, guns and gay rights trailing behind. If the proportion of questions from the audience matches these priorities, McCain, who is far more comfortable with national security than economic issues, is in for a rough night.
For his part, Obama needs only to solidify a lead and consolidate his advantages. Despite the brouhaha over the holding of a joint town hall, Obama with his agile gait and agreeable nature, may enter the hall with both tactical and stylistic advantages. He's taken questions from voters and the media at least once a day for months now, while McCain, at the behest of more cautious managers, went 40 days without a news conference in late summer. But then again, McCain has had years of practice speaking off the cuff—and he has all the incentive in the world to get back up to fighting speed.
Dayo Olopade is a political reporter based in Washington.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.