Page last updated at 04:48 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 05:48 UK
McCain and Obama clash in TV debate

John McCain and Barack Obama
Voters had a chance to ask questions directly

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Nashville

The idea of the town hall meeting reaches far back into the American folk memory - to a time when a community solved its problems by gathering all its people together for an open debate.

It is an inspiring idea - ordinary folks gathered in a common purpose to identify the right thing to do. No party politics, no expensive campaigning, no negative profiling of the other guy.

Behind the scenes of the debate as the spin doctors try to promote their candidates

How ironic that Campaign 2008 should offer us a town hall meeting just as it starts to turn negative in the build-up to its colossally expensive climax.

The town in question of course was a purely notional one, conjured up in the grounds of Belmont University, Nashville, with a population consisting entirely of well-informed but undecided voters presided over by "Mayor" Tom Brokaw, who has a day job as an NBC anchorman.

It promised to be the most interesting of the four debates of the general election campaigning season, if only because it offered voters the chance to ask their questions directly.

On paper, the format should have favoured John McCain, who conducts lots of campaign events as town hall meetings

God forbid, though, that any real debating should take place - both camps employ negotiators to limit the amount of time spent in "discussion" after each answer, more or less eliminating any prospect of real, sustained exchange that might catch someone out on network television.

'Dancing backwards'

In practice both candidates went wildly over time on a number of occasions - at one point Mayor Brokaw observed that the debate would be running a bigger deficit than the federal government if they didn't get it back under control.

John McCain
John McCain is trailing in nearly all the key polls
On paper, the format should have favoured John McCain, who conducts lots of campaign events as town hall meetings, in which he prowls the stage taking questions from anyone who wants to ask one.

In fact, I thought Barack Obama did rather better, measured in manner and clear-minded in content where Mr McCain seemed to spend too much time attempting to score points directly off his rival, with what felt like carefully-rehearsed digs that didn't seem quite to find the mark.

Mr Obama offered a performance reminiscent of a great boxer who knows he is ahead on points and only has to keep dancing backwards around the ring avoiding trouble to win. He didn't land many scoring punches, but then he didn't have to.

Mr McCain, who is now trailing in nearly all the important local and national opinion polls, went into the contest knowing he needed a clear-cut win to change the game.

He duly headed off around the ring on the offensive more than once, but he tended to telegraph his punches and they mostly felt like they missed their target.

At one point he played what is clearly his ace - his relative experience - by saying directly: "There's no time for on-the-job training, my friend."

But in such an intimate forum it felt oddly inappropriate to say it so bluntly - better surely to demonstrate the proposition with a superior grasp of the facts?

Husky sincerity

The problem with reaching back into the briefings and bulletin points for ammunition is, of course, that if you don't deliver pre-prepared material well, it can sound a little odd.

At one point, Mr McCain tried to skewer Mr Obama as a big-spending liberal by claiming he'd once voted for a plan to give $3m of federal money to buy an overhead projector for a planetarium in Chicago. I'm surely not the only viewer who spent the rest of the evening wondering what kind of projector that kind of money buys you.

Mr Obama seemed more relaxed than Mr McCain - partly, no doubt, because he knows the polls show he is heading for victory unless his rival can change the race.

Senator McCain is the man who sang 'Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran' and talked about annihilating North Korea
Barack Obama
He seemed steady and relaxed and held his natural inclination to the high-flown rhetorical flourish in check.

Mr McCain had gone for a soft note of slightly muted, husky sincerity which briefly made me think of Ronald Reagan's delivery, but mainly sounded like the tone of a children's storyteller with a sore throat.

There were some sharp exchanges of course, when Mr Obama was goaded into trading jabs.

The sharpest came after Mr McCain made the familiar charge that Mr Obama was naive to indicate that in some circumstances he would launch an attack into Pakistan to "get" Osama Bin Laden.

He quoted Teddy Roosevelt's maxim: "Talk softly and carry a big stick."

Mr Obama looked stung, perhaps for the first time in the evening, and replied: "Senator McCain is the man who sang 'Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran' and talked about annihilating North Korea."

Both men's advisers will feel they did competent jobs getting across competing visions of what America should do about health, tax and the economic bail-out package but neither had any surprises - and neither offered undecided voters anything they hadn't seen and heard hundreds of times before.

A good question

One of the most telling moments of the evening, in fact, was prompted by a question sent in over the internet by a member of the public, who asked what sacrifices Americans might be called on to make in the current difficult circumstances.

It was a question that called for poetry - a good question because it tried to drag them away from the answers to predictable issues they have been hot-housing in debate camp.

Tellingly, neither of them had a convincing answer. Mr Obama offered something about how George Bush had told America to go shopping in the aftermath of 9/11 and Mr McCain told a story about how he once saved the country $6.8bn on a contract to build a new tanker for the air force.

On the vision thing, Mr McCain spoke again about his national service and Mr Obama about how America had given him opportunities which he wouldn't have had elsewhere.

By this stage of the campaign, it's all starting to sound a little familiar.

If you were feeling generous, you might call that section of the debate a tie - but overall the message of the night seemed to me to be clear.

Barack Obama emerged as the clear winner on the night in Nashville - if only because John McCain needed a game-changing victory on the night and he clearly didn't manage one.

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