ANALYSIS: Looking Forward to the Second Presidential Debate

Tonight the two presidential candidates meet for the second time at Belmont University in Nashville Tennessee.  We’ll be liveblogging it (as always), but five hours out from the main event, what can you expect to see tonight?

Cautiously, I want to say that tonight is going to be a relatively boring affair.  It feels almost like every time we are promised major fireworks in a debate setting, we always come away feeling a little let down.

And never has there been greater potential for fireworks than between these two candidates at this time.

This debate is set to take place mere days after the McCain campaign elected to employ a strategy of outright gutter politics and guilt by association.  In retaliation, the Obama campaign has hit back with jiu jitsu style attacks on the attacks, while at the same time rolling out the Keating Five scandal.

So there’s plenty of powder in the keg, but don’t look for Obama to ignite it because he doesn’t have to.  Not with his standing in the polls.  If anyone is going to set off the fireworks, it’s going to be John McCain.

With the electoral map closing in on him, and the polls showing a hardening race that would give his opponent a landslide victory, John McCain needs a game changer and a game changer fast.  Let it be said, I don’t think his best course of action is to go on the attack, but that may be how he personally sees things.

For what it’s worth, if McCain and Palin really want to win this election, they need to take a crash course in talking about the economy, and believing in it.  Frankly, if they really want a shot, I think they need to find a common sense argument for LESS regulation, because virtually everything else from these two lacks serious credibility.  If they can’t do that, I don’t think they have much of a shot.

But getting back to tonight’s debate.  McCain’s going to talk about taxes because that’s what Republicans do best when they talk about the economy.  Outside of that, if he feels desperate enough, look for him to bring up Ayers, Wright, and/or Rezko.

I don’t think there’s a high probability of this happening, McCain seems eager to let his running mate do all the dirty work while he at least attempts to keep a clean record.  But I do think there is a high probability that he will at least attempt to touch on the “Who is Senator Obama?” theme that he has been striking on the stump lately.

If he does, that’s when I think you look for Obama to engage in the counter punching that he is famous for.  His signature move will be to employ, “This election is too important, the economy is causing too many losses, for us to talk about this silly stuff,” tactic.  On top of this, he may bring up Keating Five.

While I’m on Keating Five, I wanted to just dwell a minute or two on that subject.  The Obama campaign engineered an impressive thirteen minute video, but I don’t think it has legs to have a long lasting impact on the election, unless it gets brought up tonight.

If Keating Five gets brought up tonight, then it’s going to get a lot of talk amongst the punditry and Americans will then become reeducated on what happened and how it pertains to what’s going on in the economy today.

With this in mind, I do think there is a moderate possibility that even if McCain doesn’t go into full out attack mode, Obama may try and sneak the Keating Five in there should the opportunity arise.

As for expectations, now that we are at the second debate, the expectation game has changed.  Since the first debate, Obama has become the clear favorite to win the presidency, and according to at least a few of the major national polls, has the support of over half of the electorate.

In this context, it’s important for everyone to understand what Obama and McCain each have to do.

For Obama, his first priority is to reassure all the newcomers that they have indeed made the right choice.  For this reason, he can’t be too terribly different in his performance than he was in the first debate.  I know some pundits and bloggers out there want to see Obama showing more passion and emotion, but what they seem to not understand is that it was the calm, collected, and cool Obama that got where he is in the polls today.

Indeed, for Obama, tonight is not an introduction, but instead a reaffirmation of the introduction that he made during the first debate.  He can’t afford to lose his head, get erratic, or signal in any way that he’s not on top of the situation.

For McCain, his job is to rattle his opponent.  This election has moved into a phase where it’s about double and triple checking Obama, whom the American people are clearly leaning towards.  If McCain can knock Obama off of his game or make him lose his cool, then McCain can call this a win.

But he must tread carefully.  His audience tonight in the arena will be independents and not his own base.  So too should be his target audience watching at home.  If he is seen as being mean, nasty, or attacking unfairly, particularly in a time of crisis, this could expedite the march of undecideds towards Obama.

If McCain really wants to have a game changer, he’s going to have to keep himself in check, and talk about the issues that the voters want to talk about, not what he wants to change the subject to.  I really think that if he tries to bring up the attacks that his running mate has been making on the campaign trail, McCain’s going to regret it later.

The focus of tonight’s debate is on domestic issues, and so one should think that Obama will do well.  It begins at nine pm EST, and I’m hoping to have the liveblogging post up and ready to go at eight-thirty so come along and join us for what could be one of the most memorable debates in recent history.

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