ARI SHAPIRO, Host:
Tonight, 100 voters who have yet to settle on a presidential candidate will have a chance to quiz John McCain and Barack Obama. The second of three presidential debates takes place on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville. It'll be a town hall-style format moderated by NBC's Tom Brokaw. NPR's Mara Liasson will be there, and she joins us for a preview. Good morning, Mara.
MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Ari.
SHAPIRO: This debate comes just as the campaign is getting more aggressive and more negative. Does that seem about on schedule a month before the election?
LIASSON: Yes, it does. The campaign is getting very, very aggressive. You have Sarah Palin saying that Obama pals around with domestic terrorists. You have Obama running this 13-minute Web video about McCain's connections to the villain of the 1980 savings and loan scandal, Charles Keating. You have Obama running an ad that seems to question McCain's mental stability, saying he's erratic. And you have McCain running an ad that says Obama is dishonorable. So that's what's happening now just at a time when voters are very concerned about the economy, and of course that's been helping Obama.
McCain has said he's going to kind of take the fight to Obama tonight. He knows that one of the remaining weaknesses for Obama in the polls is the question of character. Is he ready to be president? Do you voters identify with his background and values? Obama, on the other hand, has said he might not throw the first punch, but he certainly will throw the last punch. So that is the atmosphere going into tonight.
SHAPIRO: So is that what tonight's debate is going to be about, personal attacks?
LIASSON: Well, it's going to be hard for them to do that tonight. It's very hard to deliver that kind of an attack when you are standing next to your opponent on the stage. It's even harder to deliver that kind of attack when you're standing in front of an audience of voters who are, in effect, your interviewers. Voters like a civilized forum. Don't forget, the town hall-style format favors a completely different type of interaction and performance. It really calls on the candidates to show empathy with the questioners.
Remember the famous Bush-Perot-Clinton town hall-style debate where George H.W. Bush famously looked at his watch. He seemed bored and uninterested. Meanwhile, Clinton was moving to the edge of the stage to connect with an audience member. You know, on the other hand, you know McCain is very good at these formats. He's done hundreds of them. On the other hand, Obama is no slouch either.
SHAPIRO: So who has the tougher job tonight?
LIASSON: Well, McCain has the tougher job because polls show him behind by outside the margin of error. We've had a lot of bad economic news on top of all the other bad economic news we had. We had a very depressing jobs report. The market continues to go down even though the bailout passed. And you know, the old truism in politics is that voters hate negative attacks, but politicians keep on using them because they work. It is possible that maybe this year could be different.
Voters are so focused on their number one burning issue, the economy, that they will not have a lot of patience for attacks that don't address the thing that they care about the most. It's also very hard to make debates a game-changer. We saw that in Mississippi where both candidates turned in a very good performance, and it didn't change the race. The thing that makes a game-changer is when your opponent makes a mistake.
SHAPIRO: Well, how would you describe Obama's task tonight then?
LIASSON: Don't make a mistake. He has to really turn in the kind of performance that he's been turning in. Stay calm and steady and even keeled. Show empathy. Be cool, but not too cool. And I think the Obama campaign feels at this point in the race they just have to continue to be reassuring to convince voters that he is a safe choice as commander in chief. But they certainly have the wind at their back, and he just has to make sure he doesn't mess up.
SHAPIRO: Thanks, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson who will be reporting tonight from the second presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee. And you can hear the debate live on many NPR member stations as well as at npr.org.
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