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Second Presidential Debate: Video, Highlights, Analysis

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11:55 - Sam Stein: Debate In Words: Obama talks about issues while McCain says "my friends."

A look at the words uttered during the affair underscores that Barack Obama was more focused on economic issues, the middle class, health care, change, and energy. The Illinois Democrat even talked about foreign policy topics such as Iran, Afghanistan and terrorism more than McCain. One area of focus that McCain hit at more: his "friends."

11:32 - Seth Colter Walls: McCain Touted Mortgage Plan Already Proposed By Obama:

It was the first question of the evening: how to turn the economy around and help those ensnared in the housing crisis. And in John McCain's first answer, he bragged about a bold new proposal he would implement as president -- that Obama already fought for in the recently passed bailout bill.

11:17 - Jason Linkins: Obama: Health Care Is A Right:

His introductory remarks managed to connect his big-picture thought on the matter with both his biography -- a poignant reminder of his mother's final days -- and the kitchen-table issue of the declining economy. I recall that the last Democratic candidate for President who managed these sorts of connections was named Bill Clinton.

11:05 - Jason Linkins: Obama Flips Script, Uses McCain Catch-Phrase Against Him: In their first debate, John McCain's constant refrain was that Barack Obama "didn't understand." Tonight, Obama grabbed that phrase and ran with it in the other direction.

11:04 - Nico Pitney: CBS poll: Obama wins the debate:

Just as in the first presidential debate and the vice presidential face off, more uncommitted voters say the Democratic candidate won the debate. (The exact numbers may change as more respondents complete the survey.)

39 percent of the uncommitted voters surveyed identified Barack Obama as tonight's winner; 27 percent said John McCain won, while 35 percent saw the debate as a draw.

After the debate, 68 percent of uncommitted voters said that they think Obama will make the right decisions on the economy, compared to 54 percent who said that before the debate. Fewer thought McCain would do so - 49 percent after the debate, and 41 percent before.

Before the debate, 60 percent thought Obama understands voters' needs and problems; that rose to 80 percent after the debate. For McCain, 35 percent felt he understands voters' needs before the debate, and 46 percent thought so afterwards.

According to the CNN snap poll of undecideds, meanwhile, Obama wins 54 percent to 30 percent.

11:01 - Nico Pitney: Did John McCain refuse to shake Obama's hand?

10:59 - Nico Pitney: Obama spokesman Bill Burton writes:

According to the transcript, mentions of "middle class"
Obama: 4
McCain: ZERO*

* That's a repeat from the first debate. John McCain has now gone through both debates without mentioning the middle class.

True indeed, though to be fair, McCain did mention "middle income" Americans and "working" families.

10:45 - Sam Stein: Barack Obama takes the (err...) all important Frank Luntz focus group on Fox News, though the undecideds were, well, undecided when it came to which candidate handled the economic part of the debate better.

"Obama did better overall and the key point among viewers was health care," said Luntz. Prompted by Brit Hume to go over, again, who scored better on economic matters, the crowd is split.

"Half of them though John McCain did better on the economy," said a somewhat flummoxed Luntz.

Jason Linkins: I couldn't agree more with the focus group's health care point. Obama, talking health care, that was a moment where the cat finally jumped.

10:41 - Nico Pitney: The pro-Obama group Progressive Accountability puts out this video - McCain vs. McCain:

10:35 - Seth Colter Walls: Wolf Blitzer goes there: "It's apparent to say that Sen. McCain has some disdain, I think it's fair to say, for Sen. Obama. That was very apparent throughout the course of this debate."

10:33 - Sam Stein: The debate ends with a relatively bizarre and too-easily-dismissible "zen-like" question (as Brokaw explains): "What don't you know and how will you know it"

Obama sidesteps actually answering what was asked by saying: "My wife Michelle is there and she can give you a much longer list..."

He goes on to talk about how the obstacles one faces as president are "never the challenges you expect, it is the challenges that you don't which consume most of your time."

McCain is far more serious and dire. "What I don't know is what we all don't know," he says. "What is going to happen both here at home and abroad, the challenges we face are unprecedented."

Then he offers this head-scratcher: "What I don't know is what the unexpected will be."

Not his fault. Weird question.

The two candidates, as the debate end, stand together and firmly in the way of Brokaw's teleprompter, prompting the NBC host to complain that he can't read his script.

Obama and McCain then split from each other. Brokaw, thankfully, is saved from humiliation.

10:30 - Nico Pitney: The Washington Post catches McCain "seriously misstat[ing] his vote concerning the marines in Lebanon."

He said that when he went into Congress in 1983, he voted against deploying them in Beirut. The Marines went in Lebanon in 1982, before McCain came to Congress. The vote came up a year into their deployment, when the Marines had already suffered 54 casualties. What McCain voted against was a measure to invoke the War Powers Act and to authorize the deployment of U.S. Marines in Lebanon for an additional 18 months. The measure passed 270-161, with 26 other Republicans (including McCain) and 134 Democrats voting against it.

10:29 - Sam Stein: The question turns to Israel and what should happen if Iran had a nuclear weapon pointed its way. And while McCain and Obama disagree sharply on whether to talk to Iran and what to do about the broader tensions between the two countries, they have one thing in common: they aren't going to let the United Nations get in the way.

"We obviously would not wait for the United Nations Security Council," says McCain. "I think the realities are that both Russia and china would probably propose significant obstacles."

Adds Obama: "We will never take the threat of force off the table... It is important that we don't provide veto power to the United Nations or anyone else in acting in our interests."

10:25 - Jason Linkins: Why McCain continually implies that Russia is poised to take down the Ukraine is beyond me. Also: apparently the rules of the debate allow the participants to touch any or all Chief Petty Officers. And once again, McCain clarifies: he is against second Holocausts.

Something else that no one, including Obama, ever points out. George W. Bush took his policy of non-engagement right to the well of the Israeli Knesset. He made his opinion very clear. And Israel heard it, and immediately rejected it, opening talks with hostile nations. Months later, Bush followed suit. So, why refuse to engage Iran for Israel's sake, when Israel doesn't support that policy itself?

10:21 - Seth Colter Walls: Is the GOP already spinning what they see as a loss for McCain? Twenty minutes before the debate closes -- a debate in which McCain has rarely taken the offensive -- a Republican spokesperson emails out short Ben Smith post noting that this isn't "really a town hall." Is the emerging meme that if McCain thought to have lost tonight's debate, it will have been due to its insufficient town-hall-iness?

10:20 - Seth Colter Walls: McCain repeatedly says, "I know how to get him," when talking about Osama bin Laden. No specifics follow.

"I know" may be the McCain mantra of the night, but it's unclear how claiming he knows how to achieve something the entire country wants but has yet to see happen makes any sense. If he knows, why hasn't he told President Bush?

10:16 - Seth Colter Walls: Darren Davis, a professor at Notre Dame who specializes in role of race in politics, writes about McCain's "that one" line. "It speaks volumes about how McCain feels personally about Obama. Whomever said the town hall format helps McCain is dead wrong."

10:13 - Sam Stein: If, before the debate, you were told one candidate would make the following proclamation -- "We will kill bin laden we will crush al Qaeda, that has to be our biggest national security priority" -- who do you think it would be?

It was Obama, talking about his desire to launch strikes in Pakistan even without that government's permission.

He sounds tough. And McCain, in his response, decides to recount the history of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the dangers of military operations in Waziristan. It is a remarkable, ironic, and unexpected flip to have the Democrat seem more forceful on national security matters.

10:12 - Jason Linkins: McCain is now talking about how announcing that you are going to announce an attack against another country is a tactic that will make the population of that country less amenable to your position. Hey! That's a good point, maybe! So, what, exactly does John McCain want to BOMB BOMB BOMB, BOMB BOMB Iran with? His delicious dry rub recipes? (Update: Obama just used my line!)

10:10 - Jason Linkins: Obama hasn't gotten the memo from every right-wing blog in the universe that pronouncing the word "Pakistan" PAHK-ee-STAHN is the dialectical equivalent of spreading arugula on your body and marching in the Folsom Street Fair.

Seth Colter Walls: "They are plotting to kill Americans right now," Obama says about Al-Qaeda in a response to the Pakistan sovereignty question.

"We will crush Al-Qaeda" he adds for good measure.

Overall, Obama sounds more authoritative on the question of military strength than lots of other Democrats on the national stage.

Here's Obama on national security:

10:08 - Sam Stein: Brokaw asks Barack Obama to define his foreign policy doctrine - when do we use military forces to engage - he talks more about moral issues than national security interests.

"We may not always have national security at stake but we have moral issues at stake. If we could have intervened effectively in the holocaust who among us would not have said that we had the moral authority to step in?" he asks. "When genocide or ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world and we stand idly by, that diminishes us."

McCain, somewhat ironically, talks about the dangers of getting muddled into a foreign policy quagmire that would result in a loss of resources and troops (seriously?!?!).

"You have to temper your decisions with the ability to beneficially affect the situation," he says.

10:02 - Seth Colter Walls: Obama spokesman Bill Burton puts his foot on the pedal ever so slightly, re: McCain's "that one" remark. In an email blast to reporters, he asks: "Did John McCain just refer to Obama as 'that one'?" Expect the post-debate analysis to get a little race-focused.

10:01 - Sam Stein: New Huffpost staffer Marcus Baram points out that McCain's plan to buy mortgages makes absolutely no sense when contrasted with his record.

"McCain failed to vote on bill to overhaul mortgage lending practices of FHA. In 2007, McCain failed to vote on passage of a bill that would overhaul the mortgage lending practices of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The bill would reduce the required minimum down payment for an FHA-insured loan and simplify its calculation, requiring a flat 1.5 percent of the appraised value of the home. [S. 2338, 12/14/07]"

10:00 - Seth Colter Walls: For almost the entire span of Obama's answer about health insurance companies "cheating their customers," the uncommitted women voters holding dials for CNN couldn't turn them up high enough.

Men, somewhat less enamored, but still positively impressed.

9:58 - Sam Stein: McCain hits Obama on proposing a "big-government" health care system that would burden individuals and employers.

"If you are a small business person and you don't insure your employees Sen. Obama will fine you, will fine you, that is remarkable," he says.

Then he starts promoting the idea of reducing state boundaries on health care coverage because, as he argues, the more choice the better. "Don't you go across state lines to purchase other things in America?"

Somehow, I don't think voters in the middle of Pennsylvania are thinking to themselves: "you know he's write, I shop in New York, and if I'm suffering from a near catastrophic illness I might go to the Empire State as well."

Obama responds by noting that "small businesses may not even have a mandate" to provide coverage under his plan. Moreover, he adds, many "will have a tax credit to provide the coverage they need."

The only health care mandate in his proposal is for the coverage of children.

9:56 - Jason Linkins: Obama makes his "McCain will tax your healthcare" charge. Expecting a firm response. Instead he talks up his $5K pittance -- when the average family health costs in 2007 was $12K. And then tells people that they can "go across state lines" to purchase health care. OH, CAN I? CAN I PLEASE? That's exactly what I want - to shop for allergists in Utah! How does an intractable inconvenience become a selling point?

Let's put health records online? Uhm...thanks, but no.

9:54 - Jason Linkins: Brokaw asks a weird question. Should energy be dealt with like the Manhattan Project or like Silicon Valley? What is this, the Stanford-Binet? Is the talent portion coming soon?

McCain doesn't answer that question, and honestly, I'm glad he didn't.

9:52 - Sam Stein: Aides to Obama are feeling good about the debate performance so far, saying that Obama is coming off as "warm and commanding." They like what the CNN dial of uncommitted Ohio voter portends and argue that McCain isn't exactly on his best game. Then McCain calls Obama "that one" in reference to his vote on the 2005 energy bill and the IM's from the Obama camp get a bit more heated.

9:52 - Jason Linkins: Would it kill the McCain campaign to assign somebody to keep McCain from breaking out in that creepy smile? I mean, when the Onion makes a joke about it, you have to figure that it's a worry.

9:50 - Seth Colter Walls: "That one" is how McCain refers to Obama during a discussion about energy, while once again not looking in his direction (merely jabbing a finger across his chest). That's not going to win McCain any Miss Congeniality points. Nor will it reassure any voters who believe McCain is improperly trying to capitalize on Obama's "otherness."

This goes beyond refusing to look at Obama in the first debate. With this slightly dehumanizing phrase, McCain may have just played into the emerging narrative of Obama-hate that has been sprouting at McCain-Palin rallies.

9:46 - Nico Pitney: "My friends..." McCain has used that phrase 11 times so far tonight, by my count. Yes, it's getting grating.

9:45 - Sam Stein: McCain goes where many politicians have before, suggesting a COMMISSION to handle the problems of Medicare.

"What we have to do with Medicare is have a commission," he says, "have the smartest people in America come together... Then have Congress vote up or down."

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that McCain's economic adviser, Douglas Holtz Eakin said that his candidate's Medicare policy would result in a $1.3 trillion cut over ten years. Hard to see how that passes through either a commission or an up-or-down vote.

9:43 - Jason Linkins: McCain: "It's not hard to fix Social Security." Uhm...o-kay, John! I mean, it's not hard to kick that can down the road, year after year! It's not hard to avoid the issue! It's not hard to demagogue on the issue! But fixing it? See, both parties have done a lot of can kicking, avoiding and demagoguing. And yet FIXING IT IS EASIER? Get on with it then!

9:37 - Sam Stein: Ben Smith makes a solid point. In this debate, McCain has called both for a "spending freeze" for the federal government and for that same government to buy up mortgages that homeowners can't afford and renegotiate them at new, likely more favorable, values.

He even acknowledged that it would be "expensive."

9:36 - Jason Linkins: The problem with McCain insisting that Obama's tax proposals are like "nailing jello to the wall," is that Obama's figured out how to put them in a succinct sentence: "95% of Americans will get no tax increase." As you might expect, the dial line bespeaks a lack of approval. McCain's assertion that Obama would raise taxes on 50% of small businesses...that's a new figure! Palin said it was 95%! So already, the McCain camp is polishing Obama's record!

9:35 - Seth Colter Walls: Obama talks about doubling the Peace Corps and strengthening community groups "so that military families are not the only ones bearing the burden of renewing America." That's a smart way to frame his "community organizing" past that is sometimes viewed with skepticism.

9:30 - Jason Linkins: Yeah, so, where are all the questions about Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright? Could it be that these are the obsessions of the punditocracy? That maybe engaged voters just don't give a toss about that stuff? Time will tell, I guess.

Also: John McCain is playing against expectation, not lobbing the sorts of vicious attacks that we were trained to expect. That's good for McCain. Speaking of playing against expectation: first "noun-verb-9/11" of the night goes to Obama!

Sam Stein: Obama pulls a Rudy Giuliani and raises 9/11. Only this time not evoking the specter of terror or imploring voters to stick on the offense against "Islamo-fascism" (Giuliani's second favorite word). But to bemoan missed opportunity.

"All of the country was ready to come together and make enormous changes to make us not only safer but a better, more unified country," he says. "President Bush did some smart things on the onset, but he missed an opportunity when he told people to go out a shop. That wasn't the call to service that the American people were hungry for."

9:29 - Nico Pitney: Marc Ambinder writes, "Ooh. Just caught McCain looking at Obama. Caught you, JSM!"

9:28 - Sam Stein: Brokaw complains about the candidates talking beyond their time allotments.

"We are going to have a larger deficit than the federal government does," he says, the day after the famous deficit clock broke because it couldn't chart where the country's budget was heading.

Too soon, Brokaw. Too soon.

9:26 - Sam Stein: A reader writes in to say that McCain, early in the debate mixed up a questioners name. At around the 9:03 mark he fielded a question from Alan Schaeffer about bailing out retired citizens. At 9:11pm Oliver Clark asks a question about the bailout helping Americans. Two minutes later, McCain is saying he wants to keep people in their homes like "Alan." Obama, the reader write, addresses his answer to Oliver.

9:25 - Seth Colter Walls: "I know how to do that" is shaping up to be this debate's "what Senator Obama does not understand." So far, McCain has used it on the issue of bipartisanship, earmark reform, energy independence.

9:25 - Nico Pitney: McCain claims he warned about the coming economic crisis. But as ThinkProgress notes, in 2007, he admitted he was "surprised" by the crisis. "So, I'd like to tell you that I did anticipate it, but I have to give you straight talk, I did not," he said.

Obama: Now I've got to correct a little bit of Senator McCain's history, not surprisingly, but let's first of all understand that the biggest problem in this whole process was the deregulation of the financial system. Senator McCain as recently as March bragged about the fact that he is a deregulator. On the other hand two years ago I said we've got a subprime lending crisis that has to be dealt with, I wrote to Secretary Paulson, I wrote to Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke and told them this is something we have to deal with and nobody did anything about it. A year ago I went to Wall Street and told them we have to re-regulate, and nothing happened.

9:22 - Sam Stein: Uncommitted Ohio voters are very much in love with Obama's take on reforming helath care to reduce home costs and generating energy independence so we stop sending money over seas. It's an affirmation that the pocket book issues are preeminent in this campaign and on the minds of most, if not all voters.

When McCain speaks of bipartisanship and criticizes Obama for not "taking on his party on a single issue" the line hover around the middle. It gets even lower when he criticizes Obama spending priorities, his take on earmarks, and his overall budgetary prescription. Finally, when he talks about getting middle income families working again, voters start responding.

Here's Obama on energy:

9:18 - Sam Stein: McCain demonizes Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as being the "catalysts who started this forest fire," known as the financial crisis. It is an incredibly simplistic way of explaining the situation but one that allows McCain to say he was yelling at the gates of reform while Obama was accepting campaign contributions from the two housing giants. Obama responds by saying, "I've got to correct a little bit of Sen. McCain's history, not surprisingly... With respect to Fannie Mae, what Sen. McCain didn't mention is that the bill he is talking about wasn't his own bill... and I never promoted Fannie Mae, in fact Sen. McCain's campaign chairman's firm was a lobbyists for Fannie Mae. Not mine."

9:18 - Jason Linkins: Now, suddenly, the Dial Line spikes in Obama's favor. Because he's not pointing fingers! Also: he seems to have realized that there aren't people seated in the back of the room, so there's no need to play there.

9:16 - Jason Linkins: Obama's not scoring that well with his current jag, painting McCain as a fan of deregulation. "You're not interested in politicians pointing fingers," Obama says. He's right! And yet, there he is, pointing fingers!

9:15 - Seth Colter Walls: McCain blames Obama and "his cronies" for enabling Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to be the catalyst of this forest fire. "There were some who stood against it, and others who took a hike," McCain adds, extending his metaphor. The Obama campaign anticipated this line of attacks, emailing out to reporters three different articles showing how McCain "exaggerated his own role" in efforts to prevent abuse at the housing giants.

9:13 - Jason Linkins: McCain came armed with his version of the Fannie/Freddie argument. But it's not playing well! He really needs to drop a Drill Baby in there! Or wink!

9:12 - Jason Linkins: McCain insists that he suspended his campaign. We remind you: this actually did not happen, but it's October, and words have lost all meaning!

9:11 - Sam Stein: McCain touts the economic prowess of, and suggests as a future Treasury Secretary, Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay and someone who he has turned to for economic advise in the past. Normally, this is a solid point for McCain to press; highlighting entrepreneurship and the growth of female business leaders. The problem is eBay just announced that it was firing 10 percent of its work force.

9:11 - Jason Linkins: Obama's first "Senator McCain is right" of the evening! Somewhere, in some dark Satanic mill, an RNC ad is being cut.

9:10 - Seth Colter Walls: McCain wraps up his opening remarks by pledging to "[take] care of working Americans." After getting hit for not mentioning the words "middle class" in the first debate, it appears McCain may have learned his lesson.

9:10 - Sam Stein: A Democrat points out that John McCain isn't wearing a flag pin tonight, implying that Obama is being held to a double standard for being criticized when his lapel isn't adorned. The truth is, Obama has worn a pin far more frequently in these formats than McCain. The Arizona Republican didn't wear a flag pin during his convention speech.

9:08 - Seth Colter Walls: Senator McCain starts with a dig: "Senator Obama, it's good to be with you at a town hall meeting." But since the crowd isn't packed exclusively with his supporters, there isn't even a muffled laugh -- the kind that can spontaneously happen even in a debate where the audience is supposed to stay mum.

9:06 - Jason Linkins: Obama takes his sweet time getting to specifics. No one wants to hear "failed Bush policies" and like platitudes. BUT! Once he gets to enumerating specifics, the dial line (yes, watching that again) goes up. Mainly on the strength of promising that CEOs would not get bonuses. America wants to punch Fuld in the mouth at the Lehman Brothers gym.

McCain leads with energy independence. During the Veep debate, this proved to be his best issue, and the dial line tops out for McCain. Slightly less responsive when McCain talks about housing. Hate to say it, but "Drill, baby, drill" resonates.

9:05 - Sam Stein: Accountability is a winner when talking about the current financial crisis, for all the jokes over McCain calling for SEC Chairman Chris Cox's firing. Obama picks up on that right away, taking umbrage with AIG hosting a $400,000 junket a week after they received a $80 billion bailout.

"The treasury should demand that money back and those executives should be fired," he says.

9:03 - Jason Linkins: The candidates will have demarcated areas of the stage that they may walk around in. Each candidate has had their territory marked by urinating wolves, who were later shot by Sarah Palin, with helicopters.

As the two were introduced, it was official: John McCain and Barack Obama's eyes met.

8:54 - Jason Linkins: The big question of tonight's debate is: who will go negative first, harder, faster. Obama needs to resist pointlessly escalating the tension or raising the temperature of the room. What's he prepped for? What if McCain plays the pussycat, goes high-minded and positive? Will that throw Obama for a (OODA) loop?

McCain's challenge: lay off the stunts. Everyone knows he LOVES to win some newscycles. But he's starting to resemble Gob Bluth from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. I WILL MAKE THE BOAT DISAPPEAR! I WILL BREAK OUT OF A VIETNAMESE PRISON! Where does it end, John? Don't eat the Skip's Scramble!

Meanwhile, CNN has all these useless high-def teevee bells and whistles. You can, once again, rate the members of CNN's panel, based on "who's scoring points...who's missing opportunities." Whatever that means. Anyway, America: This is your chance to really STICK IT to Gloria Borger, or something!

8:52 - Nico Pitney: Obama spokesman Bill Burton tells us: "FYI - as the debate starts, the Keating- McCain documentary just hit 1 million views."

+++

WATCH: McCain Excels At Town Halls:

Ahead of tonight's town hall-style Presidential debate, the Democratic National Committee released a new web ad highlighting John McCain's strength in town halls. The video, called "Town Hall McCain," includes clips of analysts praising John McCain's performance in town halls and shows McCain himself bragging about how much he enjoys them. As one Republican who called town halls "one of the hardest thing to do in politics" said, John McCain does town halls "better than any other politician."

Tuesday's Debate "All About McCain": WaPo's Dan Balz outlines the challenge McCain faces tonight as his campaign flounders:

What are his options? Even his running mate, offering encouragement from her perch, says it's time to take off the gloves and go after Obama. Through advertising and in campaign trail rhetoric, that's the direction McCain has charted. But the other piece of wisdom that must be rolling around in McCain's head is the warning that town hall audiences don't like confrontation, attacks or anything particularly nasty.

So calibrating his performance Tuesday becomes especially difficult. In the first debate, McCain wouldn't even look at his younger rival. That's not really possible when the two will be less tethered to specific spots on the stage at Belmont. Can he be engaging and still engage?

For what it's worth, advisers to both candidates say that given the format, it would be a mistake to go on the attack.

Poll: McCain Needs A Game Changer: An NBC/WSJ poll shows just how much McCain has riding on tonight's debate:

[T]he latest NBC/WSJ poll has Obama up six points, 49%-43%, which equals his biggest lead over McCain in the survey; two weeks ago, Obama was up two in the poll, 48%-46%. As NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) put it: "John McCain finds himself in a hole no candidate wants to be in" -- behind with less than a month to go. Remember, while six points might seem like a small lead, it can translate into an Electoral College landslide if this is what the margin is on Election Day. What's more, while pundits (including us) couldn't agree who won the first two debates, the poll makes it crystal clear who won: Obama-Biden. By a 50%-29% margin, voters said that the Dems bested their GOP counterparts at the first two debates.

There Will Be Followups: Ben Smith reports that while McCain and Obama agreed not to include follow-up questions in tonight's debate, moderator Tom Brokaw wasn't party to the deal, and hasn't agreed to it.

At least six million questions have been submitted online, the New York Times finds. There will only be time for 15 to 20.

Obama Raises Expectations, Questions McCain's Temper: National Press Secretary Bill Burton releases a memo touting John McCain's experience with the town hall format, while also wondering if McCain will "continue his refusal to even look at Obama on stage -- like in their first debate." The memo also suggests that McCain will "launch his nastiest attacks" yet at tonight's debate.

Slate: The Risks Of Town-Hall Debates John Dickerson warns that town-hall debates can go very wrong for candidates:

"Ponytail Guy" is the term some in political circles use to refer to Denton Walthall, who asked a question in the second presidential debate in 1992. A domestic mediator who worked with children, Walthall scolded President George H.W. Bush for running a mudslinging, character-based campaign against Bill Clinton in 1992. Referring to voters as "symbolically the children of the future president," he asked how voters could expect the candidates "to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it, as opposed to the wants of your political spin doctors and your political parties. ... Could we cross our hearts? It sounds silly here but could we make a commitment? You know, we're not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the U.S. to meet our needs--and we have many--and not yours again?"

It did sound silly: a father-president dandling a nation of children voters on his knee. But instead of challenging the paterfamilias premise, the candidates took his pain seriously. Walthall didn't scold Bush by name, but as the camera shot over his shoulder (showing us his ponytail), Bush could be seen growing annoyed. The question was addressed to all the candidates, but Bush was the candidate running the character-based campaign. He had answered a previous questioner by making the case for why Bill Clinton's character should be an issue. So it was obvious Bush was the target of the Ponytail Guy's criticism.

On Tuesday night, we'll get to hear from some of this campaign's swing voters--the rules of the debate guarantee their participation--as undecided voters pose questions to the candidates in the town-hall debate.

AP: Stakes Higher For McCain As Insults Mount: Strategists tell the Associated Press that economic crisis and polls showing Obama up mean McCain seriously needs a win:

"Generally, the stakes in this are higher for McCain," said Phil Musser, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "It's probably one of the last and most important opportunities for him to lay out an economic vision that resonates with middle America in a format that lends itself to doing just that."

But Republicans and Democrats alike say even a strong McCain performance may not be enough.

"McCain can win the debate, but the trajectory of this election would not be fundamentally altered unless Obama also made a pretty dramatic and serious mistake," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist in Vice President Al Gore's 2000 campaign.

Debate Format Favors McCain -- Tuesday night's debate will be held in town hall format, with undecided voters in the audience asking questions. However, moderator Tom Brokaw will select the queries, submitted in writing, before the debate. Audience members will not be allowed to change their questions, and neither the questioner nor Brokaw can ask follow-up questions.

The Wall Street Journal explains how this format puts pressure on McCain to perform:

The Republican's performance in the second of three presidential debates -- the only one held in the format he tends to favor -- could help determine his ability to stay competitive in a race that seems to have moved against the Arizona senator over the past week. ...

The spontaneous, unpredictable conversational style of the events and the informal interaction with voters seem to bring out the best in Sen. McCain, more than canned, oft-repeated stump speeches do. The group interaction brings out his quick wit and self-proclaimed bent for "straight talk" -- he often will engage in extended debate with a voter who disagrees with him, even saying directly that the person is wrong.

McCain, Obama Prepare For Second Debate -- The Republican candidate is getting ready for the debate at a his family's resort in Sedona, Arizona. The Washington Post reports that he is "doing more formal preparation than he did before last month's debate in Mississippi."

Obama is preparing in Asheville, N.C. A campaign aide tells the Post that Obama will, as in the last debate, seek to present himself as a "very pragmatic, non-ideological and very even-keeled" politician.

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