Tuesday night, the highly successful season of "The Commission On Presidential Debates Presents: These Presidential Debates That We Were Commissioned To Have," moves into its third episode. And with the loose, ragtag melee that was the Vice Presidential Debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan still alive in our memories, we return once more to the more tightly-wound candidates at the top of the ticket: President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. You might recall how their first debate went, actually! (Badly, for Obama.)
This is the second of three debates that Obama and Romney will have, and it's being universally characterized as a big turning point in the race, because the political media basically calls whatever is just about to happen a big turning point in the race. But the middle parts of trilogies have a hallowed place in pop culture -- like "The Empire Strikes Back" -- that people end up remembering with real clarity, as opposed to the final chapter in the story -- think "Return Of The Jedi" -- which people largely think of as sort of a let-down, with Ewoks.
There's no telling if this second meeting between Obama and Romney will follow this same pattern, but there are enough wrinkles to this second debate to make it very interesting.
THE VENUE AND TOPIC AREA: The second debate returns to Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. -- the site of one of the 2008 debates between Obama and Sen. John McCain. The venue presents challenges not just for the two candidates, but for all the reporters who are not familiar with the workings of the Long Island Railroad. ("Take the LIRR to Hempstead Station and transfer to the N70, N71, N72 or the Hofstra Shuttle Bus," advises the MTA.)
Once again, the topic area will be a mix of domestic and foreign policy questions, but the real story here is the unique format of this debate.
THE DEBATE FORMAT: This second debate is a "town hall-style" debate, in which both candidates will answer the questions of undecided voters who have been assembled by the Gallup organization for this one-night-only, talk-to-average-Joes-and-Janes debate. This format presents unique challenges. Primarily, the candidates will have to prove that they can engage with voters. Manifesting empathy is key: Romney and Obama will be demonstrating how they relate to ordinary people on national television. This may be the one opportunity many voters have to see their candidates involved in that sort of exchange.
The town hall format also requires the candidates to handle the space in a different way. Rather than sitting at a table or locked behind lecterns, the candidates will be able -- encouraged, really -- to move about the space, engage in close conversations, and break "the fourth wall" and draw the whole audience into the discussion. This act creates pitfalls of its own -- four years ago, John McCain made a lot of trouble for himself when he was caught wandering through the camera frame on multiple occasions. Back in the 2000 debates, the town hall format was perilous for Al Gore, when -- in a moment he probably immediately regretted -- he moved in on George W. Bush's personal space in a vaguely threatening matter. It didn't play well in the hall, or on camera.
If you've made a habit of reading a lot of the post-debate critiques, you've probably stumbled across critics of the first two bouts who cite the issues that didn't come up. Immigration reform, for example, hasn't gotten debated yet. We've heard very little about the foreclosure or student loan crisis. The bad news is that the final debate is a foreign policy debate, so this might be the last opportunity to pose questions about these and other domestic policy topics. The good news, however, is that ordinary people think differently from political reporter types -- the amount of untrod ground they cover, along with the quality of their questions, could surprise you.
THE MODERATOR: Following on the heels of Martha Raddatz, CNN's Candy Crowley is the second of this debate season's two glass ceiling-shattering women of Debate Moderation. Unfortunately for Crowley, she's not stepping into the spotlight without becoming the focus of some heavy-duty ref-working from the campaigns. These reactions from the Romney and Obama camps have been elicited, in large part, because of comments that Crowley has made that intimate she might try to mount some sort of "journalism" or something. As Mark Halperin reported:
While an early October memorandum of understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns and the bipartisan commission sponsoring the debates suggests CNN‘s Candy Crowley would play a limited role in the Tuesday night session, Crowley, who is not a party to that agreement, has done a series of interviews on her network in which she has suggested she will assume a broader set of responsibilities. As Crowley put it last week, “Once the table is kind of set by the town hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about x, y, z?’”
In the view of both campaigns and the Commission, those and other recent comments by Crowley conflict with the language the two campaigns agreed to which delineates a more limited role for the moderator of the town hall debate.
From our standpoint, we think that Crowley has precisely the leeway she describes. In her conversation with our own Jack Mirkinson, she essentially clarifies her role in this way: "It's kind of organic. I don't have this, 'no matter what, I'm not going to say anything,' or, 'I'm going to interrupt any time I think they say something.' That's just not how I'm parsing it out. I think you have to just go with what's happening at the moment." She has also said, "I want to hear less from the moderator than I do from the candidate."
So it doesn't sound like Crowley has much intention to steal the spotlight -- she just wants to credibly perform the roles of journalist and moderator. (As for the candidates, perhaps they are worried she will point out when they dodge questions or tell falsehoods, hence the attempts to rein her in, in advance.)
THE PRE-GAME: We all know the deal. This is the do-or-die moment where Obama erases the memories of his listless performance, or he manages to find a new way of screwing up and compound his problems. In general, Obama fans have tremendous expectations going into the second debate. Critically, it should be pointed out that satisfying the expectations of Obama fans does not necessarily translate to satisfying the expectations of voters, who may be more open-minded in their evaluation of who deserves to be the chief executive. But in general, it's expected that Obama will be firmer in defending his record, and more willing to call out Mitt Romney for any falsehoods or position switches or mischaracterizations. And folks like Andrew Sullivan expect Obama to work back to some of the Romney critiques that staggered Romney -- like his 47 percent remarks -- and expose the flaws in his policy prescriptives.
Here, that town hall format could be an impediment. The biggest task for the debaters Tuesday night will be relating to the audience members and answering their questions. Not every moment is going to be ripe for an attack, and even if one does arise, it can be tricky being overly aggressive in this setting. The presence of these undecided voters will create a demand for basic politesse -- it's not the sort of environment where Joe Biden's withering, expressive criticism of Paul Ryan plays well. Rather, he'll just want to find a way to present himself as a hero to the Democratic base, and restore the faith in independent voters that he's a credible choice for president. And navigating the pitfalls that the town hall format presents may be just as important as taking a fight to his opponent.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: What's Romney's goal? Keep on keeping on. The best outcome from his first debate is that he gave the conservative commentariat, finally, something to believe in after a summer in which they were some of Romney's loudest critics. Silencing their carping seems to have had a correlation to Romney's recent advances in the polls. Keeping this dynamic going simply requires Romney to keep on walking and talking and looking like a credible president.
For Obama, stakes are high. There's an eternal argument over whether debates ultimately move the electoral needle, and whether they do so with real significance, but there's no denying that Obama started taking a beating in the polls around the time the lights went down in Denver. There's no getting around the fact that he'll have to come to Hofstra as a reinvigorated, better prepared debater. If he's smart, he's been studying tape of his "Secretary Of Explaining Things," Bill Clinton, who thrives in this sort of setting. (The Obama campaign might even want to consider somehow astrally projecting Bill Clinton's consciousness into Obama's body, if there's not already a debate rule barring that.)
The unavoidable bottom line? If he flops a second time, he'll be characterized as a goner, and like it or not, that characterization will hang around his neck like dead weight.
[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]