Tonight’s second presidential debate is being billed as a “town hall” format. But here are the rules:

Tuesday’s match-up at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., will be moderated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw, with the questions to be culled from a group of 100 to 150 uncommitted likely voters in the audience and another one-third to come via the Internet. … Brokaw selects the questions to ask from written queries submitted prior to the debate, according to the “contract.”

An audience member will not be allowed to switch questions. Under the deal, the moderator may not ask followups or make comments. The person who asks the question will not be allowed a follow-up either, and his or her microphone will be turned off after the question is read. A camera shot will only be shown of the person asking — not reacting.

While there will be director’s chairs (with backs and foot rests), McCain and Obama will be allowed to stand — but they can’t roam past their “designated area” to be marked on the stage. McCain and Obama are not supposed to ask each other direct questions.

So no follow-ups from anyone, period—not the audience, the moderator, or the candidates. That’s a pretty damn tightly controlled “town hall.” At least the first debate, with Jim Lehrer, allowed for a certain amount of give-and-take. This one sounds like nothing but a forum for reciting talking points.

(And where do they find that many “uncommitted” voters at this stage of the game, anyway?)

Nevertheless, I’ll be watching it, and coming back here later to update this post with reactions. My expectations, however, are not high.

In the aftermath, I have to say it wasn’t as bad as I expected. Despite the rules, Tom Brokaw managed to use the “discussion” periods to slip in a few follow-up questions.

That said, the format still had its problems. For one thing, walking around on a stage holding a microphone is just not a position in which John McCain comes across at his best. I know he’s 72 and spent five years living in a cell and all that, but still, he looked… well… animatronic, for lack of a better word. Obama, by contrast, was lithe and graceful. It only served to underscore the age difference between the two.

More importantly, the time limits were so tight that even though the candidates were both giving short, even oversimplified answers, Brokaw kept urging them to go even shorter. Still, despite reiterating points that are by now familiar to those of us who have been following the race, the candidates at least avoided descending into the kind of cheap personal attacks that have dominated the media in recent days (thanks especially to McCain’s campaign). The discussion stayed (relatively) substantive.

McCain definitely had his peculiar moments, my friends—most notably his odd reference to Obama as “that one” in reference to a past bit of Senate business. Truthfully, my friends, I don’t know what sort of impression he expected that to make. He also mentioned Joe Lieberman at least three times, my friends, suggesting to me that he’s really wishing he’d gone with the running mate he originally wanted. He referred to both Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt as “my hero,” which seems like a bit of overkill, my friends, if you ask me. He made an odd point about wanting to approach Afghanistan, my friends, with the “same strategy, but of course it will have to be different.” And he referred twice to the country’s need for a “cool hand at the tiller,” my friends, which hardly seems to dovetail well with his own reputation for hotheadedness. Plus he has certain verbal tics that get really annoying after a while… know what I mean, my friends?

Still, for all that, McCain avoided the sort of tense, erratic, angry demeanor that kept showing through last week, and in that regard he’d improved. Trying to look at this as if I were an undecided voter, I don’t think it was as clear a win for Obama as the first one. To be fair I’d have to say the debate was a tie, in fact, in the sense that if you’re the sort of person who’s inclined to agree with the sort of things John McCain likes to say, then he did a decent job of saying them.

Of course, I’m not that sort of person:  I much prefer both Obama’s demeanor and his approach to policy. He explained the ups and downs of the economic crisis, and last week’s bailout bill, far more clearly than his opponent. He made strong, cogent points about what this country needs to do about tax fairness, and about alternative energy, and about approaching international problems in a way that’s more proactive than reactive. He unhesitatingly described health care as a human right, not just a “responsibility” as McCain put it. He found some opportune moments to contrast McCain’s political record with his current rhetoric. And in general, he remained thoughtful and articulate throughout.

It would appear that most Americans today aren’t that sort of people, either, and have finally grown tired of shopworn Republican rhetoric. Post-debate analysis showed that the very same McCain lines that appealed to Republican viewers turned off not only Democrats but also independents. And according to CNN’s national snap poll,

Fifty-four percent of those questioned… said that Obama did the best job in the debate, with 30 percent saying John McCain performed better.

A majority of debate watchers polled thought Obama was more intelligent, by a 57 percent to 25 percent margin over McCain. Twice as many debate watchers also thought Obama more clearly expressed than McCain, with 60 percent giving the nod to the Democratic nominee and 30 percent to his GOP opponent.

Hands down, debate watchers questioned thought McCain rather than Obama spent more time attacking his opponent: 63 percent said McCain went more negative, as opposed to 17 percent who pointed to Obama. …

McCain did come out on top in one category that neither candidate wants to win: By a 16 point margin, debate watchers thought McCain seemed more like a typical politician during the debate.

According to the poll, 64 percent had a favorable opinion of Obama after the debate, up four points from the pre-debate result. McCain’s favorability rating remained unchanged.

So McCain held his own, in the sense that he didn’t embarrass himself or alienate his core supporters. Beyond that, however, he still seemed to expect people to trust him on the basis of his experience. With the state the nation’s in and the way the polls have been trending lately, though, that’s just not enough to change the race. Not even close.

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2 Responses to “A debate-free debate?”
  1. michael says:

    well, the format sucked. and neither candidate said anything new. but jon stewart had a great bit about the stupidity of undecided voters. really, this late in the longest and perhaps most important campaign ever, who could still have failed to form an opinion and still intends to vote?

  2. Yes, it does, and I think we’ve had more than enough of talking-point recitation in both of our federal elections.

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