Kent Bush: Debate's format held back both candidates

Kent Bush

To play on Lloyd Benson's famous debate line, I know town hall meetings, and that was no town hall meeting.

The town hall format is familiar to Republican frontman John McCain. He enjoys the format and is thought to excel in that setting. But Tuesday night, the format was a poor facsimile of a true town hall meeting.

In fact, it held back both candidates like hitching a wagon to a thoroughbred.

The questions were limited to keep from having a wild hare being chased across the stage. But the limitations led to answers that would have made vanilla seem interesting.

The format, which should have been a chance for McCain to make up ground on Democrat Barack Obama, ended up offering an umbrella of protection for the front-runner by holding the information within the bounds of both campaigns' talking points.

When you don't allow the candidates to interact, the format takes the form of a dual dialogue.

McCain tried to mount attacks, but his caustic style often missed its mark.

He came off more desperate than aggressive. Those appearances were backed by poll numbers that almost all seemed to strongly favor Obama.

A CBS News poll showed 54 percent felt Obama won the debate, while only 34 percent thought McCain came out on top.

Obama said nothing new. The Republicans claim he is only comfortable giving speeches and not being pressed for details. Unfortunately, no details were needed to win the debate Tuesday night.

Overly broad or strikingly simple questions allowed the candidates to give lip service to the issues and go on to discuss other issues of their own choosing.

McCain also hit some sour notes. As he has in past debates and interviews, McCain claimed he knows how to turn the economy around and even kill Osama bin Laden.

He's not telling anyone, but he knows how.

"But the point is that I know how to handle these crises. And Sen. Obama, by saying that he would attack Pakistan, look at the context of his words. I'll get Osama bin Laden, my friends. I'll get him. I know how to get him," McCain said. "I'll get him no matter what and I know how to do it. But I'm not going to telegraph my punches, which is what Sen. Obama did. And I'm going to act responsibly, as I have acted responsibly throughout my military career and throughout my career in the United States Senate."

It resounds with campy bravado.

Obama responded to the criticism and McCain's assertion that "America should talk (sic) softly and carry a big stick," not give away our nation's plans and policies.

Obama struck back. "This 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,'" Obama said.

The GOP standard-bearer also made a proposal that shocked his right-wing base.

Right after calling for an end to the spending spree going on in Washington, D.C., McCain proposed an additional $300 billion plan -- outlined on his campaign's own fact sheet -- to federally subsidize home loans on top of $700 billion that passed Congress.

Then he attacked Obama for being a free spender.

The ring of disingenuousness was clearly heard by those who said Obama won the debate and was more easily trusted on both the economy -- by more than 20 percentage points in most polls -- and even on Iraq, by a margin of 51 to 46 percent.

Normally, at the end of festivities, MSNBC and CNN will declare the debate a tie or give the win to a Democrat. Fox typically takes the side of the Republican.

But Tuesday night, all three channels declared Obama a hands-down winner -- even on the issue of foreign policy, where McCain is thought to have an advantage.

Fox anchor Brit Hume even asked, "If John McCain didn't do what he needed to do tonight to change the tide of the campaign, then what can he do?"

The answer from the right-wing pundits was to attack Obama more.

Are Americans really just waiting for better attacks? If McCain doesn't have the answers to voters' questions, all the attacks in the world won't stem the tide of states shifting to a solid shade of blue.

James Carville told voters in 1992, "It's the economy, stupid."

In 2008, stupid or not, it's about the economy more than ever.

Voters say they are far more comfortable with Obama at the wheel of this economy than McCain. That doesn't bode well for a campaign trying to make up ground on him in the polls.

Each day slips like a grain of sand through an hourglass. McCain's campaign has less than 30 days left to find a message that resonates with voters.

Tuesday night was not a good one for McCain.

The format failed to allow him to find his comfort zone. Obama didn't excel, but he did more than enough to maintain -- and even expand -- his lead in the polls.

Augusta Gazette