After Gwen Ifill seemed frustrated at losing control of last week’s vice presidential debate, Tom Brokaw seemed determined not to let that happen Tuesday with John McCain and Barack Obama.
The veteran NBC anchor was like a schoolmarm trying to keep unruly students at bay, and he interjected several of his own questions into what was the only town hall-style meeting of this year’s three presidential debates.
“The town was taken over by the mayor at some point,” said ABC News’ Jake Tapper.
The result was an evening that many pundits said did little to change the current direction of the campaign, which polls show has been tipping in favor of Obama, the Democrat.
PBS’ Jim Lehrer tried, during the first debate, to lure McCain and Obama into direct conversation with relatively general questions. Ifill had trouble with the GOP vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, expressing little interest in answering her questions and the Democrat, Joe Biden, essentially debating a man who wasn’t there — McCain.
Brokaw had the authority to choose questions from an auditorium audience in Nashville, and those submitted online. The economy dominated the early part of the debate, and foreign policy the latter.
Frequently, the candidates skirted past the citizen questions and into stump speeches; if the questioner was unhappy, he or she wasn’t allowed to say. Brokaw bored in with more specific followups.
McCain and Obama seemed knocked back on their heels when Brokaw asked whether citizens had to be prepared for the economy to get worse before it gets better (neither would suggest harder times were ahead) and when he asked who they had in mind for the next treasury secretary.
“Not you,” McCain said, buying time to think of his reply.
“With good reason,” Brokaw replied.
Brokaw asked each of the candidates how he would prioritize efforts to make changes in health care, energy policy and entitlement programs. McCain said they could be worked on at the same time.
And by asking McCain and Obama whether they considered Russia an evil empire — like Ronald Reagan did of the former Soviet Union — he forced them to think quickly and consider the impact of their words on an international stage, not just on an election campaign.
Brokaw often had to remind the candidates to keep their answers within time limits they had agreed to before the debate. The rules seemed routinely violated.
Some of his broadcasting colleagues grumbled later about him. Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume called it “a debate which at times seemed to be more taken up with the worries of the moderator about the time requirements and with making sure that he got his own share of questions.”
Conservative commentator William Kristol said Brokaw’s choice of questions seemed run-of-the-mill and allowed for little opportunity to get a sense of each candidate’s personality.
“I really think it did a disservice to the campaign and, since McCain is behind, frankly, a disservice to McCain,” Kristol said on Fox News Channel. “The fact that it was that kind of extremely conventional, inside-the-Beltway, Cabinet secretary-type debate of course helped Obama.”
The one oddball question came at the end, selected off the Internet: “What don’t you know and how will you learn it?” Both candidates said they had to be prepared for the unexpected and zoomed into prepared closing remarks.
CBS’ Bob Schieffer, who will moderate the final presidential debate, said Tuesday’s session was constricted by the format.
“I would have loved to have seen a little more followup than we saw tonight,” Schieffer said. “It seemed like just when it was kind of getting good, then they’d have to go on to another subject.”
There were interesting responses to two McCain comments that may linger. MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell pointed to the results of one of those meters that track the visceral reactions of viewers during the debate: When McCain talked about how pinning Obama down on an issue was like nailing gelatin to the wall, the opinions of independents shot straight down.
CBS’ Jeff Greenfield noted the time when McCain referred to Obama as “that one” during a discussion about energy legislation.
“Those two words are gonna be what the watercooler conversation is tomorrow,” Greenfield said. “Was it demeaning? Was it an insult?”