In some ways, it wasn't a fair contest. John McCain was facing not one but two opponents. One was the Democratic nominee sitting on the bar stool across the red-carpeted stage from him. The other was his own veep nominee—who drew 70 million viewers to her debate against Joe Biden last week.
Sarah Palin understood clearly the techniques that work on television. The substance is not what matters most; rather it's the optics, and the angles, and the ability to project affability and warmth through the lens of the camera perched over the moderator's shoulder.
That lesson was lost on John McCain in Nashville on Wednesday, who seemed to think that a town-hall debate on television was the same as a town-hall debate in a real town hall.
He paced up and down in fits and starts as he spoke. He leapt from subject to subject, sound bite to sound bite. Between answers, he sat down and scribbled page after page of notes, then jumped up and paced around silently. Early on, he seemed ill at ease in engaging with his questioners; how close should he stand? And how much should he look at them? His approach seemed to present a serious challenge to the show's producers, as they struggled to find the best way to frame McCain's interactions.
There was no questioning the GOP nominee's energy level; he seemed to have enough pent-up force to power a substation.
Barack Obama, by contrast, barely touched his notepad, sat firmly in his seat when he wasn't answering, picked a spot to stand in addressing his questioner and stuck to it. He didn't light the place up with his energy level, and critics will maintain that his cool demeanor still doesn't connect with Main Street voters. But he moved easily about the stage, and seemed far more comfortable without a podium than his rival did.
Which is unusual, given McCain's professed love of the town-hall setting. It was the McCain camp, after all, that had proposed a town-hall forum every week during early discussions about the debate schedule. Given the instant polls gauging the outcome Tuesday night, McCain ought to be grateful that Obama said no: a CNN poll showed a 24-point lead for Obama.
Heading into the showdown in Nashville, the pressure was largely on McCain. Trailing in national polls and in a number of the key battleground states, he knew he needed to play up his national-security credentials, raise questions about Obama's experience—and try to reverse voters' rising confidence in the Democratic Party's ability to address their economic concerns. He came out swinging, as he had done in the first debate. He bashed Obama on earmarks, and hit him again over his diplomatic posture vis-à-vis talks with Iran.
But at times, McCain seemed to sense that the audience might not be buying it—as though he was aware of the risks of attacking when many surveys suggest that the blows have driven his own negatives up. Addressing a question that touched on the Bush administration's energy legislation, he said: "By the way, my friends, I know you grow a little weary with this back and forth. It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one," McCain said, pointing to Obama. "You know who voted against it? Me." With that, he grinned like he'd just hit the jackpot on the slots.
Obama smiled through the attacks, but he was less generous with his praise than he'd been during their previous meeting in Mississippi. Gone were the frequent nods to "John" being "right," or absolutely right, on a whole host of issues. At one point, he feinted in that direction, allowing that his opponent regarded him as "green behind the ears" (cliché police: that's green, senator, or wet behind the ears). But even as McCain called out a thank you, Obama wheeled and stuck in the shiv, reminding audiences that the supposedly mature one on stage had been the guy who once sang "Bomb Iran" to the tune of a Beach Boys ditty, and called for the "annihilation of North Korea."
Obama also seemed determine to defuse another line of criticism—that he fails to connect with voters on a personal and emotional level. He talked about how his mother had scrapped with insurance companies on her death bed, how the family had been on food stamps and how his grandmother scrimped so that the family could afford to give him a first-class education. And he sought to express empathy with his questioners as they described their own financial struggles. He hardly rivaled Bill Clinton's ability to feel their pain—but he did express some of his own.
McCain remains a formidable presence—a tough debater relentlessly on the attack. But he needed a knockdown Tuesday night to help change the narrative of the campaign. At the end, Obama was still standing, and smiling. On to round three.