The Second Time Around

Tonight President Obama and Mitt Romney square off in their second debate.  Debates always are a political high-wire act — and tonight that is particularly true for President Obama, who will be looking to recover from a first debate that has given Mitt Romney a surge in the polls and a sense of significant momentum.

This debate will have a “town meeting” format.  Undecided voters chosen by Gallup will ask questions of the candidates.  The topics may include foreign and domestic issues.  Each candidate gets two minutes to answer, and then moderator Candy Crowley of CNN has another minute to “facilitate a discussion.”   If everyone stick to the time limits (ha!), answers will consume about five minutes, which means more than 15 topics could be addressed during the 90-minute debate.  That presents a much more daunting candidate preparation challenge than did the first debate, where the topics that would be the subject of questions were disclosed well before the debate began.

I’m not a big fan of the town meeting format.  Too often, the citizen participants ask narrow questions about topics that might be important to them but aren’t really relevant to the general public.  Due to the short time limits the debates flit from topic to topic, each candidate reeling off their two-minute talking points about the issue without any real give and take between the candidates.  How is the moderator supposed to “facilitate a discussion” in one minute?  When was the last time you had a one-minute “discussion” about anything?

Still, the format does have its intrigue.  Any time you have average folks in a room with presidential candidates there’s the chance that something unexpected might happen and a screwball question might lead to a memorable moment.  Add in questions about whether Crowley will depart from the agreed-upon moderator’s role and conspiratorial theories about whether any of the “undecided voters” are really partisan plants who will ask a question scripted by one of the campaigns and you have an event that is worth checking out.

My only prediction is that this debate will have an even larger TV audience than the first one.  I think the continuing talk about the President’s performance during the first debate will cause people who skipped that contest to tune in just to see how the President does and whether Mitt Romney can turn in another strong performance.  I think we’ve finally reached the point where all likely voters are fully engaged in the process.  That means most people — outside of New York Yankee and Detroit Tiger fans — will probably watch to see how their candidate does.