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The talk host, the professor

One paces, the other sits, and both take shots. But the 'friendly' town-hall chat stays civil for the most part.

October 08, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

The two candidates for president got together Tuesday night for a "town-hall meeting." The question that hung after their last meeting, a couple of very long weeks ago, was whether for the rematch John McCain would bring the nasty or the nice, having failed in Round 1 to look Barack Obama in the eye. Until even a few days ago, I would have predicted nice, but my third eye grew cloudy after the McCain camp declared its intent to take the campaign negative and did.

It was Smiling John who came onstage to shake his opponent's hand, and while things grew less friendly, it was never quite the bare-knuckle fight some predicted. William Ayers never came up, at least; perhaps that's a "leave it to Sarah" subject. (Palin seems to have permanent possession of "maverick" as well -- it did not appear last night.) As nasty as he got was when he referred to his opponent as "that one." The McCain camp had also signaled that the nominee would use "humor," and he sort of did here and there, but it was not quite a ju jitsu move.

If the question marks mostly surrounded Obama at their first debate -- would he look like a president despite not looking like any president Americans had seen? -- they were gathered around McCain this time. The Republican nominee, trailing in the polls, needed to move the river. But short of a big nasty revelation, a trance-inducing catchphrase, or tricking Obama into taking a poke at him, it was hard to imagine how.

The format mixed vetted questions from audience members, seated in a half-circle around the nominees, with others submitted over the Internet and some from moderator Tom Brokaw himself, disguised as what he called a "discussion period." What made it different primarily is that the nominees were up close with the crowd and allowed to walk around. (When McCain spoke, Obama watched from his stool, but McCain tended to pace even when Obama spoke.) Glibly, I would say the setup highlighted McCain's inner talk-show host, while it brought out the professor in Obama.

Brokaw, though he had trouble keeping the debaters to their time limits ("I'm just the hired help here," he finally sighed), seemed to me the most focused, pointed and specific of the three moderators so far. When at the end the opponents blocked his teleprompter, as they moved to shake hands, it was an unexpected moment of real humor in which the participants became human. And it was a relief.


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