With the record-setting vice presidential debate now history, it’s back to the top of the ticket on Tuesday night.
John McCain and Barack Obama square off in a town-hall-style debate moderated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw at Belmont University in Nashville. It’s the second of three debates between the candidates, with the last one scheduled for Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft.)
Experts say that while Thursday’s Sarah Palin-Joe Biden vice presidential battle was interesting television, it will probably be long forgotten by the time the voters make their way to the polls.
“It’s back to the top two candidates,” CNN political analyst Gloria Borger said. “In the end, that’s who people are going to be voting for.”
The format of Tuesday’s debate will stand in stark contrast to the other three. Brokaw may be the moderator, but he won’t be asking any questions. Instead, he’ll be handing the microphone to a group of ordinary people — undecided voters all — who will ask questions that might not be what the mainstream media has been asking.
“It’s not the high drama of the YouTube debates. I don’t think we’ll see any snowmen asking questions (as in the 2004 YouTube debates sponsored with CNN),” said Dotty Lynch, a former CBS News analyst and a faculty member at American University in Washington. “But they are typically pretty interesting. Viewers at home can put themselves into the shoes of the questioners more than they can reporters.”
Each question gets a two-minute response from the candidates, followed by one minute of discussion. In the first presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer gave two minutes of responses each followed by five minutes of sometimes painfully awkward discussion.
Risks of a town-hall format
It’s also one of the first times in a long time — perhaps since the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire 10 months ago — that the presidential candidates will have extended interaction with real people. McCain is known to be relaxed and comfortable with the town-hall style format. Obama, not so much, perhaps.
“The town hall debate is McCain’s best debate format,” said Paul Levinson, a professor at Fordham University in New York. “Obama ... clearly is a much better speaker to a huge crowd or an interviewer (than he is at a debate).”
The town-hall format has its risks. In 1992, a reflexive action by then-President George H.W. Bush to look at his watch, caught by a camera, played into conventional wisdom that he was out of touch with average Americans.
“Non-verbal communication is king in the debate, even though a lot of people don’t realize that,” Levinson said. “It’s not so much what they say, it’s what they look like when they’re talking and, even more important, when their opponent is talking.”
It’s also about confidence, said Leonard Steinhorn, a public communications professor at American University.
“These are uncertain times and people are looking for somebody who is going to be the steady hand at the tiller. That’s how people will be looking,” Steinhorn said. “They don’t just listen to what they have to say, they’ll listen to how they say it. They look at the command, their mannerisms and their temperament.”
High ratings, not squabbling, expected
What there probably won’t be will be a lot of bitter back and forth between the candidates, experts say.
Said CNN’s Borger: “Will they be negative directly to each other? Will they be combative? It’s going to be interesting to watch how they engage.”
It’s likely that ratings will be higher than the 52.4 million viewers who tuned in for the Sept. 26 opening presidential debate that was held on a Friday night. But it’s also likely that it won’t come close to the 69.9 million who tuned in for Biden-Palin.
One TV executive well acquainted with ratings said he wasn’t going to make a prediction.
“You don’t know whether the tune-in was for Palin or because of increasing interest in the campaign. We don’t know enough,” CNN U.S. president Jonathan Klein said. “I have learned not to make any predictions about this campaign whatsoever.”