Election 2008

second presidential debate, town hall debates, town hall debate mccain Obama
Mark Humphrey/AP
Ariz. Sen. John McCain and Ill. Sen. Barack Obama
at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., during
the second presidential debate on Tuesday,
Oct. 7, 2008.

Obama and McCain Face Off in Town Hall-Style Debate

October 08, 2008 11:45 AM
by Liz Colville
On Tuesday night, the presidential candidates met in a town hall-style debate moderated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. The debate saw both candidates reiterate many previous points on their stances on energy, health care, foreign policy and the economy.

Domestic Priorities and Foreign Policy Dominate Second Debate

Starting with a question on the economy, Sens. McCain and Obama settled into the town hall style, which had them walking around the floor to talk to audience members, several of whom asked questions on topics including global warming, health care, Pakistan and Russia. Questions were also submitted by voters via the Internet. Both senators used the opener to make claims they forewarned of the credit crisis with statements each made in 2006 and 2007.

On health care, which, along with other domestic issues, the candidates spent most of the debate discussing, Sens. McCain and Obama agreed on digital medical records, CNN reported. But on whether health care in America should be a responsibility, right, or privilege, McCain called it a "responsibility," while Obama called it a "right." McCain discussed his $5,000 tax-deductible credit to allow Americans to go buy their own insurance plans, and Obama discussed a universal health care option in lieu of what people currently have now.

The New York Times live blogged the debate via The Caucus, noting the candidates' stances on alternative energy, notably nuclear power, which McCain frequently talks about. Drawing on research from experts, the Caucus writes that "nuclear power, even in a best case, is only likely to be a small fraction of the long-term effort to curb emissions of carbon dioxide." The candidates also discussed geothermal, wind and solar power.

On the issue of foreign policy, McCain reemphasized his military career and time in the Senate as justification for how he would capture Osama Bin Laden and conduct relations with Pakistan. He referenced his "idol" Theodore Roosevelt, quoting Roosevelt's "Walk softly, but carry a big stick" motto for diplomacy, as he has done in recent weeks, adding that he would also "talk softly." "Sen. Obama likes to talk loudly," McCain said.

Sen. Obama responded, "[T]his is the guy who sang, 'Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,' who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don't think is an example of 'speaking softly.'" He also reasserted his promise to have "direct talks with our enemies," which McCain disagreed with, and called up the military choices of the Bush Administration, describing them as "reactive" and "muddle[d] through."

The final question asked the candidates, "What do you not know now, and how will you learn it?" Sen. Obama made references to his upbringing and admitted that his biggest challenges while in office would be the unforeseen ones. Sen. McCain said America "is hurting" as it never has in this generation and agreed that the greatest challenges are "unknown." (Read the full transcript from CNN.)

Reactions: Who Won the Second Debate?

The Wall Street Journal blog Washington Wire suggested that Sen. McCain may have won the debate—or at least some points on the economic front—by "laying out for the first time a plan that goes beyond the $700 billion bailout package passed by Congress last week."

Forbes' Trailwatch blog accused both candidates of being "vague" in the debate, while the Kansas City Star's Midwest Voices blog declared a "narrow" victory for McCain, called the debate "boring" and said Sen. Obama "never seemed to gain his footing."

In The Stump, the New Republic's election blog, Noam Scheiber gives the victory to Obama, describing him as "professorial," using his experience as a law professor to his full advantage. "All summer long—really for several years now—we've heard how McCain excels in townhall settings. But tonight he seemed old, cranky, and downright tired as he trooped around the stage. His movements were stiff and herky-jerky—surely a product of his brutal treatment in Vietnam, but nonetheless jarring to watch."

Slate’s John Dickerson says that “in town-hall debates, the questions from the crowd can easily be turned into ‘moments’ that journalists cling to for weeks.” In an article preceding the debate Dickerson recalls the “Ponytail Guy,” who made an appearance at the 1992 debate and railed President George H.W. Bush for “running a mudslinging, character-based campaign” against his inevitable successor, President Bill Clinton.

One such "moment" for Sen. McCain was when he was discussing an energy bill that Sen. Obama supported even though it awarded oil companies. "You know who voted for it?" McCain asked the audience. "You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me."

Sen. McCain did change tack and likely moved many voters in the final moments of the debate by sharing words with a retired military serviceman in the audience, shaking his hand and thanking him for his service. This answered to calls for McCain to "ditch the chainsaw," as his former campaign adviser Mike Murphy put it prior to the debate.

Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg suggests that the debate was a tepid draw, with the candidates repeating familiar statements and catchphrases and not showing the audience who they really are. "Enough with the earnest interlocutors and their boring questions that take us to the same platitudes repeated over and over again."

Background: Polls Give Obama Lead Prior to Second Debate

Voter registration in the battleground states is shifting in Ill. Sen. Barack Obama’s favor and many polls are currently giving him a lead over Ariz. Sen. John McCain, but both candidates are seeing the second debate—a town hall-style format with 80 undecided voters accompanying them on stage—as the central event of the week. Sen. McCain may try to steer the conversation away from the economy and toward foreign affairs, but both candidates will likely be faced with challenging questions from Americans feeling the effects of the Wall Street crisis.

The week of the second debate began with tougher words and advertisements from both campaigns, reintroducing the “guilt by association” theme that nabbed the spotlight prior to September’s bank collapses. The weekend of Oct. 4-5, Republican vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin brought up Sen. Obama’s connection to former Weather Underground activist Bill Ayers, describing Obama as “palling around with terrorists.” In response, Obama’s team brought up Sen. McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five scandal during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. The Los Angeles Times notes that McCain asked “Who is the real Barack Obama?” at a recent rally, while an ad by the Obama team called McCain “erratic.”

Reference: Election 2008; Debate transcripts

Visit findingDulcinea’s Election 2008 section for more recent articles on the campaign, as well as profiles of the candidates and their running mates and articles on key election issues like the economy and energy.

Watch the entire debate via MSNBC's Web site.

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