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The Town Hall Debate: Teeing Off

Body language alone was almost enough to make Barack Obama the winner of the first presidential debate. Down in Oxford, John McCain seemed crabby and small. His tactic of not even looking at Obama – I hope it was just a tactic, not the real McCain – was so odd and inappropriate that it must have made people wonder about McCain’s temperament. He tried to belittle Obama and instead belittled himself.

Tonight in Nashville, McCain should be much more competitive in terms of the vibe he gives off. McCain likes the “town hall” format and is good at it. I could be wrong, but I doubt that intangibles such as body language will play a significant role this time. It seems to me that the focus, for a change, will be on substance – specifically, the economy. The financial crisis and the $700 billion bailout would be enough to concentrate voters’ minds on economic issues. Today’s 508-point fall of the Dow guarantees that money, or the lack thereof, will be on the minds of many of the citizens who get to ask tonight’s questions.

For Obama, the strategy is clear – link the financial chaos to the Republican philosophy of deregulation and laissez faire, and promise to restructure economic policy in ways that favor the middle class. For McCain, the way through the economic thicket is less obvious. He has to distance himself from George W. Bush without explicitly renouncing his own long-held economic views. He has to find a message on the economy that resonates with voters. He may have to explain his own less-than-serene reaction to the acute Wall Street crisis two weeks ago. And, oh yes it wouldn’t hurt if McCain occasionally looked Obama in the eye and maybe even smiled.

To use a metaphor that anyone who plays golf will understand, McCain will be standing on the tee with five or six swing thoughts in his head. As a general rule, the next thing that happens is: “Fore!”

By Eugene Robinson  | October 7, 2008; 8:22 PM ET
Categories:  Robinson  | Tags:  Eugene Robinson  
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Next: The Town Hall Debate: What I'd Give for a Follow-Up



Your way too kind. The next thing that happens is, "whifffffttt" and the call of an initial mulligan.

Posted by: robertsou | October 7, 2008 8:52 PM | Report abuse

I watched Keith Olbermann talking about other people doing McCain's sleazier personal slurs and smears for him. Did he actually refer to them as "Sarah-gates"?

Posted by: purplemartin2 | October 7, 2008 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Robinson,

I hope you are right about tonight being about substance. All of this talk about ancient associations and votes on nonbinding resolutions is not helpful.

Posted by: mikeinmidland | October 7, 2008 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I miss watching Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Now those were fun.

I think this debate is much more important to those inside the Beltway than to those of us outside it. I'm moving between the debate and South Park reruns.

Posted by: cthehill | October 7, 2008 10:05 PM | Report abuse


"That One" for the president of the United States.

Posted by: MILLER123 | October 7, 2008 10:48 PM | Report abuse

Can I get the McCain and the Feds to pay for my mortgage.

Posted by: MILLER123 | October 7, 2008 11:08 PM | Report abuse

You are WAYYYYYYY to partisan on behalf of Obama. Did you notice how Obama blinked his eyes constantly while waiting on the stool to answer. This means "lying" in body language. Give McCain a break. Obama is a liar (not to mention all the other things he is).

Posted by: Dianne2 | October 7, 2008 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Obama says, "health care is a right."
Here here... i couldn't agree more.

Posted by: hugo3 | October 7, 2008 11:15 PM | Report abuse

at least Palin properly asked Biden for permission to call him "Joe" (setup or not, that's just plain good manners)

McCain didn't ask anyone's permission to refer to a United States Senator as "that one."

despicable. he was better off ignoring him like he did last time. that was just rude. "that one" is offensive.

Posted by: JoeT1 | October 7, 2008 11:23 PM | Report abuse

Oh, please,tell me there is not one American so stupid as to vote for four more years of the trouble brought upon us by the GOP and the Republicans. Spare us!!! THINK before you vote!! I mean THINK! If the republicans are so great and are such a great government then why are we in such a hell of a mess? THINK for a change!! You are such SHEEP!

Posted by: mary_gardener | October 7, 2008 11:24 PM | Report abuse

McCain didn't look better tonight than he did during the first debate. He wasn't avoiding making eye contact with Obama, but he seemed unfocused and whiny. If he hoped to swing the momentum tonight, he didn't get the job done.

Posted by: Heron | October 8, 2008 12:42 AM | Report abuse

McCain and Obama Town Hall Debate
The Pulse of Politics

I handed my husband his digital blood pressure monitor as John McCain and Barack Obama sparred on our television screen. No, I wasn’t worried about David busting a blood vessel over political rhetoric. Last month he had undergone cardiac bypass surgery and it was time to measure his vital signs. I nudged his dinner plate aside on our round rattan table.

Tom Brokaw delivered the next question to the two candidates. As most of the other selected questions tonight, this one had a predictable feel. The responses sounded scripted. How disappointing. I wanted to learn something more about Obama and McCain, about how their minds worked.

Minds. For two weeks, the possibility of losing David--the “hero” in my life--had gnawed at my mind and stomach with the rat teeth of fear. The hum of the blood pressure meter had become all too familiar. The death rate was one per person. Eventually, tragedy hit all lives. I glanced at the television screen. So how would McCain or Obama function in the face of simultaneous sudden personal loss and national disaster? If either lost a loved one on the same day the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged to 5,000, could he cope? Become the “hero” our nation would require?

I recorded David’s vital signs. Blood pressure too low. Pulse rate too high. He’d been having atrial fibrillation. His heart’s auricles had shimmied around instead of delivering the full contracted shipment of life blood to his ventricles. A medical analogy for routine governmental operations?

The thump of a tail joined the candidates’ vocal beat. Our hundred-pound pooch implored with wistful eyes. I set my dinner plate, now containing his evening treat, on the kitchen floor. McCain and Obama tossed out some dubious financial “facts.” If only a meter could measure the pulse of politics, display the truth of all politicians’ claims. My published book, Heroes Arise, had been classified as science fiction/fantasy, but I preferred to base my votes on pure reality.

Posted by: laurelannehill | October 9, 2008 7:03 PM | Report abuse

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