In a presidential race mired in recent sharpened attacks, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama will answer to undecided voters in Tuesday night’s town hall-style presidential debate, the second of three before Nov. 4th’s election.
The debate, held at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., will be moderated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw and will feature chosen questions from an audience of 80 undecided voters as well as a few questions sent in to Brokaw.
Unlike the first presidential debate, candidates will answer questions straight from voters, making it tougher for them to launch attacks against their opponent or to stray from the question to other talking points.
“The candidates tend to answer the questions more directly,” Mitch McKinney, an associate professor at the University of Missouri said of town-hall debates, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The format of the debate may actually keep the candidates on a more positive track, according to author and professor Alan Schroeder. “The audience could turn on the person who is seen as the one who is being inappropriately aggressive,” Schroeder told the Chronicle.
Tuesday’s debate format was agreed upon by both campaigns and outlined in a 31-page document. The regulations stipulate that the questions will be pre-selected by the moderator, cannot be changed by the questioner, and audience members will be chosen by Gallup Organization to ensure they are representational of the nation’s seven-to-eight percent of undecided voters.
The candidates will have stools to sit on but will be allowed to walk around the stage in their designated areas and are not permitted to ask one another direct questions. Brokaw will control time limits and cannot ask follow-up questions.
The second debate traditionally has provided a chance for candidates to improve on weaknesses in their first debate, so both McCain and Obama will be looking to improve on certain aspects of their delivery.
“Analysts say to look for McCain to make more direct eye contact — or at least come — with Obama, and look for Obama to agree much less with McCain and try to connect better with his audience,” according to the Chronicle’s analysis.
Republican aides told Bloomberg News that McCain will try to lighten the mood with a little more humor. McCain senior adviser Nicolle Wallace said that surrogates will act as “aggressive truth tellers” behind-the-scenes during debate night.
Obama senior adviser Robert Gibbs said the Obama campaign will focus on the issues, according to Bloomberg. “But if we need to counterpunch, we’re certainly prepared,” Gibbs said.
The debate marks the second-to-last time the candidates will face-off before the election and comes at a critical time for McCain, who’s been falling farther behind Obama in polls amid the recent turmoil on Wall Street.
It seems certain that the economy will top voters’ questions lists with wild fluctuations in the stock market and fears that a $700 billion U.S. government bailout will not be enough to fix a credit crisis.
“Questions posted on the Internet for the debate show that voters are intensely interested in what the candidates will do to shore up the tanking financial system,” wrote Katharine Steele of the New York Times.
A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Obama leading McCain nationally 49 percent to 43 percent. Two weeks ago, the same survey had Obama at 48 percent to McCain’s 46 percent.
Still, many give McCain an edge in Tuesday’s debate, since the Arizona senator tends to flourish in town hall-style meetings, as opposed to his rival, who prefers speaking to larger crowds.
“The spontaneous, unpredictable conversational style of the events and the information interaction with voters seem to being out the best in Sen. McCain,” Amy Chozick of the Wall Street Journal reported. “The group interaction [brings] out his quick wit and self-proclaimed bent for ‘straight talk.’”