Should Obama, McCain Go Negative At Debate? Tuesday, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama are meeting for the second presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.'s chief political correspondent John Dickerson explains why the candidates need to look out for the "pony-tailed guy" at the town hall-style debate.
NPR logo

Should Obama, McCain Go Negative At Debate?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Should Obama, McCain Go Negative At Debate?

Should Obama, McCain Go Negative At Debate?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ALEX CHADWICK, host:'s chief political correspondent is back, John Dickerson. You know, on the show yesterday, we talked about the increasing negativity in the campaign. And since then, the Associated Press reports Senator McCain is calling Senator Obama a liar for saying in speeches that Senator McCain opposed banking regulations. Where are we going, John?

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON: (Chief Political Correspondent, Well, we're going in an increasingly negative direction. McCain is turning up the heat on Senator Obama, and his running mate Governor Palin is going even father than the senator himself. Senator Obama is defending himself, talking about McCain's relationship with Charles Keating back in the '80s, and so it's escalating.

We come up to the debate, and the real question we're all looking for is whether this fracas will continue on the debate stage. It sometimes does not. They behave themselves in front of regular people at the town hall debate tonight. On the other hand, McCain is in a tough spot tonight. The polls are very much turning against him. He's got to do something to change the dynamic of the race, and the debate is one place he can do that.

CHADWICK: This is in Nashville tonight, as you said. Your piece on this is the lead in Slate today. And your advice for the candidates, look out for the ponytail guy. Who is the ponytail guy?

Mr. DICKERSON: The ponytail guy is what political hacks call a questioner from a 1992 debate, the second debate in that campaign. A man with a ponytail stood up in the course of the debate and asked a question of the candidates. His name, by the way, was Denton Walthall. He asked the candidates, he said, when are we going to stop this mud slinging?

And he sort of directed the question to all three. Ross Perot was running in that race, as well you may remember. But it was really aimed at George Bush. He'd been raising character issues about Bill Clinton, and this question really kind of threw off President Bush, but it also scolded him, essentially, even though the questioner didn't mention President Bush by name. But it scolded him for running a character-based campaign, and it's one of the ways that these town hall events can be unpredictable.

CHADWICK: Because these are more or less normal people getting up asking kind of questions that are on their minds. And when these events are replayed on television, as you note, and TV anchors refer to these as independent voters. They become powerful symbolic figures.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's right. There are two ways in which they become symbols. One, independent voters and folks who haven't made up their minds see themselves in the questioners. And so they associate themselves with these moments because they see someone just like them. The press, of course, is waiting for such a moment and loves to replay it again and again because what we're looking for in the world are these undecided voters, and the undecided voters are sort of key to this race. And so we fixate on anything that happens to them.

CHADWICK: The website Real Clear Politics has been a summary of polls. Today, for the first time, its swing states are all for Senator Obama - Missouri now by a tiny margin, others - Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Virginia, all closely contested or for the Republicans two, three weeks ago, all now for the Democrats. The margins are growing.

Mr. DICKERSON: Yes. This is a good encapsulation of the problem Senator McCain faces. This battle is all taking place on Republican turf, and Barack Obama is moving deep into Republican turf. He's pretty much got two of the states that George Bush won almost locked up as far as the polls are concerned, Iowa and New Mexico. All the other states in which he's really contesting, these toss up states are all on red state territory.

John McCain is up in states where he might make in roads, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota. In the polls, in the average of polls from Real Clear Politics, John McCain is down in those states outside of the margin of error. So in his best states that he might take away from Barack Obama, he's still down. So it's a tough looking map for John McCain right now.

CHADWICK: John Dickerson, chief political correspondent at Thanks again, John.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thanks so much, Alex.

Mr. EDWARD SCOTT: This is Edward Scott (ph), Pensacola, Florida, concerning the debate tonight.


We're reaching out to undecided voters in swing states. Here's one from Florida.

Mr. SCOTT: What I'd like to hear from the candidates is simplicity. I'd like to know exactly what they're going to do without hyperbole, without talking about hope and fear and theory, specific programs on what they're going to do to get this country back on track.

BRAND: Tomorrow, we'll check in with Ed and find out if he heard what he wanted to hear.

Hey, don't forget our blog, where you can weigh on whatever - almost whatever you want,

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.