Second Obama-McCain presidential debate preview

I’ve got a teething baby who needs me, so I’ll make this short. U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain meet tonight at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. for the second debate of the general election. What do the candidates need to do to win the town hall-style debate? How does it fit in with their overall campaigns?

Some analysts are already predicting that Obama has sewn up the election (if today were Election Day) and a number of others are convinced he’s very close to doing so. Polls show Obama has nailed the blue states, has opened up leads in some battleground states, and is pressing McCain hard in some red stronghold states such as North Carolina.

This means that Obama’s task tonight is simply to avoid a major blunder. He needs to be conservative (temperamentally, not politically) in his responses to audience questions and not give some wild off-the-cuff answer that hasn’t already been through the focus groups and practice sessions of his campaign apparatus. He needs to remember, as he did so well in the first debate, to give the headline answer first before delving into details. He needs to seize plausible opportunities to discuss the economic crisis, as long as he answers the questions put to him. He also needs to convey ease and confidence in his body language. In short, he needs to keep doing most of the things he’s been doing — except for the recent counterattacks on McCain.

McCain has a much harder task tonight. He’s behind, and running out of ammunition. Ideally, when the inevitable question about the economy comes his way, McCain needs to give a spectacular answer that not only shows he understands viscerally the impact on average Americans, but also has a plan simple enough to articulate in a few minutes and sufficiently different from Republican economic policy of the past eight years. Failing that, the only ammo McCain seems to have left is to attack Obama as a person. He needs to disrupt the Obama game and change the subject, forcing Obama to react to him. In a tight race, playing up fears about your opponent can be very effective, but I don’t think McCain can make up enough points this way to even put him within striking distance of Obama. Another problem for McCain is that this kind of attack typically doesn’t play well in town hall debates, and it’s possible that no one will ask directly about the subject of any of the character attacks the McCain campaign has made against Obama. So absent that really spectacular answer about how McCain would fix the economy and protect the average American, McCain is stuck having to delicately sow seeds of doubt about Barack Obama.

It would be nice to hear some honest talk from both the candidates about how they’ll have to change their tax-cut plans — neither one will be able to carry out the plans they articulated before the recent acceleration of the economic crisis — but I don’t expect either one of them to even own up to the need for changes.

The debate starts at 6 p.m. Pacific time, 9 p.m. Eastern. On almost everywhere.

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