Obama, McCain square off in town hall

Analyst: Tuesday's debate ratings won't top Palin-Biden

NASHVILLE -- The second act between John McCain and Barack Obama went on without the will-he-or-won't-he drama of two weeks ago. But a further financial meltdown on Wall Street threatened to turn Tuesday night's debate into the second feature on an increasingly bleak bill.

McCain and Obama were still the stars of this show, but they weren't the only ones on stage. Tom Brokaw was the director with some but not all script control. Supporting players were 80 uncommitted voters, all from around Nashville, who came out on a rainy evening to pose questions to the candidates.

And Wall Street and Main Street, where this debate played, were never far from thought.

Like a jury hearing the evidence, the questioners sat mostly stone-faced and impassive. Some of the questioners were halting, as not all were used to the spotlight. But everyone seemed on point to voters' concerns in what Brokaw called a "world that has changed a great deal, and not for the better" since the Sept. 26 debate.

McCain and Obama sparred early and often, trading barbs and charges. Both candidates went on so long, contrary to the debate rules, that multiple times Brokaw had to break in.

"I'm trying to play by the rules you both established," Brokaw protested at one point. The questions included pocketbook issues, health insurance, whether to go after Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the level of support for Israel in the event of an attack by Iran.

Controversy came up toward the end of the debate, when McCain referred to Obama as "that one." It was quickly jumped on by the Obama campaign and the blogosphere, some of whom said it showed another example of disrespect shown by McCain. One campaign operative, speaking after the debate, said that McCain looked "angry and agitated."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a McCain supporter, told reporters afterward that it wasn't meant like that.

"I'm sure he didn't mean any disrespect for Sen. Obama," Lieberman said.

But all the back and forth could have played a back seat to the larger picture, and it won't be clear until Wednesday how many people were watching.

Unlike the first debate Sept. 26, ratings expectations were managed going into Tuesday night. While Commission on Presidential Debates officials said before that one that they expected 80 million to tune in, the true viewership came in much lower. It didn't even seem like it would have the juice of the Sarah Palin-Joe Biden debate of last Thursday, with more than 70 million viewers.

"I think Sarah will still be the leader after tonight," Fox News Channel anchor Chris Wallace said Tuesday before the debate from Nashville. "They'll get a bigger audience (compared to the first debate) because Tuesday night is a better night for television than Friday."

But the TV viewership may not be as strong as some hoped. Media research chief Brad Adgate said that there are plenty of ways to check out the debate without having to see it -- and more viewing alternatives than ever before.

"I can't see this doing any more than (the 70 million for the vp debate or the 52.4 million for the last debate)," Adgate said.

"The only advantage is that it's on a Tuesday night instead of a Friday night," he added. "There have been a lot of bad news, the financial markets, the problems with the global economy. I don't know if a lot of people are going to sit there and watch these guys debate."

In the first two debates, there was a curiosity factor. Not so much on Tuesday night, when the voters have already seen these two men debate.

Fox News' Wallace said that ratings generally decline after the first meeting, although the economic issues plaguing the country could be a wildcard.
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