Tuesday debate expected to fare well

McCain-Obama likely to outdo their previous ratings

NASHVILLE -- It may not get the ratings of last Thursday's Palin-Biden debate, but Tuesday's town hall meeting with John McCain and Barack Obama will probably do better than their first debate.

No one is making the same mistake this time around as they did for the first debate Sept. 26 in Oxford, Miss., where the Commission on Presidential Debates figured it could be record-breaking given the high interest all campaign season. Those hopes were dashed the next day when it failed to attract even the same level as the first Bush-Kerry debate in 2004. Nielsen Media Research estimated that 52.4 million viewers tuned in for the first McCain-Obama debate.

It's unlikely that this matchup will draw the 70 million that their running mates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, got Thursday in the best debate performance in years. Tuesday's debate has a better night for primetime than the Mississippi debate, however, which came in on the second-lowest-rated night for TV all week.

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

Lenny Steinhorn, a communications professor at American University in Washington, is bullish on the ratings.

"It'll be substantial. It's the middle of the week, unlike the last presidential debate, which was on a Friday night," Steinhorn said. "As much as people are interested in this election, they are not organizing their lives around it."

The TV viewership may not be as strong as the pundits hope. Horizon 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," Adgate said. "There has 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, though the economic issues plaguing the country could be a wild card.

"The candidates come in a little more excited about the (town-hall) debate because they have the opportunity to engage with voters and not just sort of be there, taking the incoming questions from one single moderator," ABC News political director David Chalian said. "Perhaps they will be a little more easy with one (debate) under their belt.

NBC News president Steve Capus, in Nashville for the event, didn't think it was possible to say how well the debate would do, but he pointed to strong ratings Monday night on the cablers to show there's a lot of interest.

"It's just tough to game," Capus said.
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