A slime-free town hall debate

It’s hard to understand how the McCain people think they can win this election by shifting attention away from the economy (which just so happens to be the top public preoccupation), and instead trying to convince voters that Barack Obama is a terrorist-friendly, patriotism-challenged man of mystery (a tactic that, in terms of effectiveness, may have peaked last spring).

On the other hand, the McCain people at this point appear to have a dwindling set of options. The polls continue to go south. Last night, the Fox News pollsters reported that Obama is now up by seven points in pivotal Florida; two weeks ago in Florida, the Fox pollsters had Obama down by five.  Also last night, the NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters reported that Obama now leads among independents by four points nationwide; two weeks ago, he was trailing John McCain among independents by 13. Obama leads among all likely voters by six points, and the economy is key; six in 10 voters cite the economy as their top concern, and, among those folks, Obama leads McCain by 15 points.

The McCain strategists’ response is to play guilt by association. They’re talking about how Obama once served on a board with Bill Ayres, an academic who was a domestic bomber 40 years ago. Various conservative commentators have already denounced this tactic - Tucker Carlson said last night that Obama and Ayres have never been close, and Peggy Noonan said simply that it's "old" - but no matter. When all you seem to have left is the kitchen sink, you throw it.

Team McCain is subcontracting the slime to the surrogates (Pennsylvania’s GOP chairman said last night that Obama is “a terrorist’s best friend”). And, best of all, they’ve unleashed Sarah Palin to sound the alarm - wait, didn’t she just say last week that we shouldn’t be “pointing backwards?" -  although it’s hard to see how Palin can ultimately save the day…given the fact that, outside of the GOP base, she is taken seriously only as a source of fresh material for Tina Fey.

But don’t assume that McCain will join the fray tonight by personally sliming Obama during the second presidential debate. Assume the contrary.

McCain won’t dare to hit the low road – not with a “town hall” audience on the premises. His hardball impulses will be trumped by the format. Real people will be asking questions about the very topic that McCain wants to avoid. They’ll want to know which candidate can best protect their livelihoods, and if McCain was to start talking instead about a guy who committed despicable acts when Obama was eight years old, this race would be over. Concerns about McCain’s temperament are now surfacing in focus groups – uncommitted voters in swing-state Missouri are telling pollsters that McCain might “go off half-cocked” or get “P.O.’d” in sensitive situations – and any pit-bull behavior tonight would further confirm what they already dislike.

Simply put, it is impolite to slime in a town hall setting. The voters have already decided that Obama and Joe Biden won the first two debates – by a margin of 50 to 29 percent, according to the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll – and there’s no chance that McCain will volunteer to further widen that gap by talking trash. Rather, he’ll be stuck with the task of talking substance, or something that approximates it. In all likelihood, he’ll again try to paint Obama as a tax hiker (accurate, in terms of people making $250,000 a year or more) and as an advocate for a government takeover of health care (inaccurate). But he’ll leave the personal stuff for Palin, his ad mavens, and his surrogates.

Obama’s challenge is to connect interpersonally. The rap on him is still that he’s too cool, that he doesn’t exude enough (Bill) Clintonesque empathy. He’ll be conversing on stage with regular folks, and this provides him with an opportunity to solidify his lead in the polls.

If he can connect, if he can articulate sensible ideas on the economy, and if he can come off as calm and non-ideological (in other words, a reprise of the first debate), then he will probably inocculate himself from the GOP’s personal attacks. Why? Because a lot of viewers will say, “The guy I’ve been watching on TV, and judging with my own eyes and ears, doesn’t seem anything like the guy that other side is describing.”

There are reports that McCain is boning up extra hard for the debate tonight. I don’t doubt it.