At the end of the primaries in June, John McCain invited Barack Obama to participate in ten town hall debates and was turned down. Tonight it was unclear what all the fuss was about. Starting off the 90-minute session with an indirect reminder of that – “Senator Obama it is good to be with you at a townhall meeting” – Mr McCain missed the second out of three opportunities to deliver a serious blow to his opponent.
By Edward Luce in Columbus, Ohio
To be fair, part of the blame should go to the format. So nervous are both campaigns of giving their candidates any leeway for slipping up that they hedged the debates around with more rules than American football. On the rare occasions the candidates engaged a direct back and forth with each other, Tom Brokaw blew the whistle. Since it was the candidates who had supposedly negotiated the rules, Mr Brokaw might have been wiser to simply let them continue.
Even then, however, Mr McCain did not seem to be as comfortable in his skin as Mr Obama – and this was in spite of the fact that the townhall approach is his favourite setting. As with the first debate ten days ago, Mr McCain was unable to disguise a strong whiff of disdain towards his younger opponent, at one stage even pointing at Mr Obama and referring to him as “that one” (perhaps in a mangled echo of the very effective McCain advertisements mocking “The One”).
Mr McCain also chafed frequently at Mr Obama’s tendency to overrun his allotted time, issuing several side quips on that theme throughout the evening. The net effect was to reinforce the impression from the first debate: Mr McCain appeared frustrated and Mr Obama seemed almost laid back.
All of which better serves Mr Obama’s purpose. Neither candidate convincingly won what was, in truth, a fairly dull debate. But as the frontrunner a draw was all that Mr Obama required. Mr McCain will need to think of a very different tack for the third and final debate on Wednesday 15 October.
Likewise, with just 27 days remaining before polling day, the McCain-Palin campaign desperately needs to raise its level if it is to throw Obama-Biden off course. Changing the conversation away from the economy looks like an increasingly forlorn hope given the highly skittish response of the markets to last week’s $700bn bailout package and the continued deterioration in the macro-economic numbers. Focusing on Mr Obama’s most shady past associations, whether it is on Bill Ayers, the former Weatherman, or Tony Rezko, the convicted property developer, sounds like old news.
And hoping that Mr Obama will slip up by making an epochal gaffe looks less likely with each passing debate – his level of consistency and self-control is impressive. Four weeks is still a long time. But the longer Mr Obama maintains his lead, the more difficult it will be to overturn.