NASHVILLE—This was to be the breakthrough night in Sen. John McCain's lagging presidential campaign. A town hall meeting was the ideal venue for the Republican candidate to roam around a stage to make his case in the second debate.
It didn't happen.
While the senator from Arizona performed adequately, Sen. Barack Obama more than held his own. The Democratic nominee seemed to be more at home in the arena than McCain was.
Watching the debate inside the frigid hall at Belmont University was not the best way to evaluate the candidates. Watching a replay later on TV, where tens of millions of voters saw it, was preferable.
The tailspinning economy is on everyone's mind these days. And while neither man has the perfect answer to fix it, McCain has the Bush administration record on his back—fair or not. The unpopular GOP president is in charge, and nothing seems to be working.
Obama's answers on healthcare and the environment were far better than McCain's. The senator from Arizona closed with a flourish, citing the excellent story of a proud Navy family dedicated to serving the country.
The body language of the candidates on TV was intriguing. McCain seemed to avoid eye contact with his younger opponent at every turn. Meanwhile, the senator from Illinois was intent on studying McCain while perched casually on his seat.
Both came up with questionable numbers on each other's voting records in the Senate. Many of those numbers they were citing were on multiple procedural votes, not on final passage or decisive vote of an issue. The Senate operates that way.
In the predebate speculation, McCain was reportedly going to pull out all the stops by going after Obama's character. To his credit, he didn't, although the debate format made it difficult.
But McCain's running mate, the unqualified Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, is doing the hatchet job work for the GOP ticket. With a smile on her face, she is smearing Obama on the stump, and it could backfire with voters desperate to hear more on the woeful economy, escalating gas prices, and two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ironically, the debate was held in Tennessee, a state likely to be one of McCain's best on November 4. His problem remains that there are 49 other states, and the Democrats are creeping up on the 270 electoral votes necessary to win.
One more debate next week at Hofstra University and four weeks to go in this marathon. The GOP can't be happy about where the race is now.