Less than 12 hours to go before the second presidential debate, this time in the town hall format moderated by Tom Brokaw where the candidates take questions from voters. Here’s a look at what the two candidates need to do, based on the first debate and the events of the last week.

McCain, his campaign, and his operatives have decided to go on a full blast assault on Barack Obama based on his associations with Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, and to a lesser degree, Jeremiah Wright. The harshly negative tone borders on shrill at times. While Hillary Clinton and her campaign tried to make an issue out of it during the primaries, there was no silver bullet there to sink Obama’s candidacy. Unless some enterprising reporter uncovers a previously undiscovered damning smoking gun, odds are the guilt by association attacks won’t have any impact during the general election either.

The Muslim Manchurian Candidate rumors are beginning to circulate again, and a sheriff at a Palin event in Florida dropped the H-bomb, a comment the McCain campaign called “inappropriate.”

Political operatives and TV pundits say that people are turned off by negative campaigning, but the reality is it works. The risk for the person who goes negative (in this case, McCain) is that in going negative, you risk driving up your own negatives in addition to the other guy’s. A political murder-suicide, if you will.

The point of doing this is not for McCain to win an election, but for Barack Obama to lose it. McCain has been losing since the financial crisis hit, and he is running out of time to change both the media narrative or political momentum in his favor before voters go to the polls. By focusing the narrative of the last day or so on blistering attacks on Barack Obama, McCain has all but guaranteed he will go there during the debate tonight if Tom Brokaw does not.

Looking back at the first debate, McCain got the Al Gore 2000 treatment from the media and the talking heads afterward, when almost everyone pointed out his inability (or refusal, depending on your perspective) to look Barack Obama in the eye when answering a question, even at the encouragement of Jim Lehrer. McCain’s advisors would be guilty of political malpractice if they did not point this out to him and correct it before the debate tonight.

He also needs to avoid any major gaffes, or repeating any of the exaggerated or false lines of attack which have already been well documented and debunked by the press (i.e. the sex ed for kindergarteners ad). If McCain goes there, do not be surprised if Tom Brokaw, if not Barack Obama himself, calls him out on it.

McCain prefers the townhall format, which of course means the Obama campaign is raising expectations of him before the debate.

Obama has been in the driver’s seat for the better part of two weeks and continues to build on his momentum in state and national polls. He already held his own in the first debate, which thematically was focused on John McCain’s strong subject.

Obama was clearly prepared for a negative barrage in the home stretch, since he launched a website attacking McCain for his role in the Keating 5 scandal at the same time McCain began hinting of his own negative attacks earlier this week. It wouldn’t be a classic October Surprise for anyone who knows McCain’s history, and the candidate himself has written about it in his own books. But this has more relevance to the current situations than Obama’s dealings with Ayers, Rezko, and Wright because 1) it was part of the biggest banking and financial crisis of its day, which Obama can then try and tie into what is happening right now; and 2) it involves McCain’s behavior and judgment as a U.S. Senator.

Like McCain, Obama needs to avoid making any gaffes in the debate which can be exploited by his opponent. Obama has been very cool in the sense that he doesn’t get rattled or angry during a debate, a benefit of the long hard slog that was the Democratic primary earlier this year. If he can get under McCain’s skin, that might create an unfavorable impression with voters at the debate and watching on TV, as well as the network pundits and talking heads.

As in the first debate, he doesn’t have to do or say anything risky except hold his own. The momentum and the political climate are working to his advantage right now. Given that the top concern on most voters’ minds right now is the economy, that automatically puts Obama at an advantage because polls show that voters prefer him to McCain on dealing with the economy, and the economy will be the focus of a lot of the questions. Because he is leading, a draw in this debate essentially amounts to the same as an outright Obama win.

One thing that both candidates need to be careful about, and it is something beyond either of their control, is the audience. Slate’s John Dickerson has this article on the perils of the town hall format and how it hurt George H.W. Bush during the 1992 campaign. It may be in the substance or tone or body language of their response to the question, but the nature of the town hall format offers plenty of opportunities for candidates to shoot themselves in the foot.

  1. […] As I said before, the town hall format offers plenty of opportunities for candidates to shoot themselves in the foot, and in this case McCain delivered. This is what everyone was talking about after the debate and in the morning papers. […]

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