With one presidential and one vice presidential debate behind us, a pattern is emerging: each time, the Democratic candidate has come to the table armed with facts and policy proposals, while the Republican catered to pundits and the public with an amalgam of attitude and atmospherics, colloquialisms and avoidance-by-way-of-personal-anecdote.
And in tomorrow's town hall meeting in Nashville, John McCain will be on his home turf. McCain's been described as the "master of the town hall," and Nashville may present his last, best hope of wresting the momentum from Barack Obama. Rest assured, he'll be in fighting form.
Obama, who has been criticized by opponents for being "aloof" and "professorial," may have his work cut out for him. But his laid-back, unflappable demeanor and his down-to-earth lifestyle create an excellent opportunity to connect with the voters in the room and those watching on television. Here's what he needs to do to capitalize:
• Keep it short. Like Al Gore and John Kerry, Barack Obama is a victim of the Progressive's love of policy nuance. The Harvard lawyer may love building and presenting a case, but he'll be speaking to "ordinary Americans" - likely white, working class, and skewing older. He'll need to keep his responses short, pithy and punchy. This is no secret, and he's pulled it off plenty of times, so there's no need to worry; but he'll have to keep it in mind the whole time. Even one belabored answer risks losing the audience for good.
• Make eye contact. And not just with those in the room. Obama should split his time between speaking to the crowd and directly to the camera. In the Vice Presidential debate on Thursday, we all witnessed the contrast between Sarah Palin's eyes staring through the screen and Joe Biden's, cast downward as he addressed moderator Gwen Ifill. Obama will be wise to remember that the people he needs to win over are on the other side of the camera.
• Get a move on. We've all seen Obama in town hall meetings, half-sitting, allowing his comfort with the constituents to create a relaxed, personal atmosphere. Even seated, his presence still commands attention. But this doesn't translate as well on camera. By contrast, John McCain is a mover. He prowls the stage, cracking jokes and addressing his "friends." In the context of the emerging campaign narrative, this contrast can serve Obama well - Obama the cool hand versus the jumpy and erratic McCain - but he must be careful not to cede control of the room. Obama has an advantage standing next to the shorter, stooped McCain, and as he walks with his languid stride, even stepping into the audience to connect with questioners, he can remain the singular focus for the entire 90 minutes.
• Yes, words matter. Obama often uses clinical language, referring to "the middle class." In more populist moments, he opts for "folks." But in informal town halls, he must go a step further, into the second person. I'd like to see him directly address a questioner, or even the television audience, with "you." I'd like to see him ask a follow-up question of those in the audience, put full names to anecdotal characters, even tell stories that extend beyond the campaign trail, into his personal life. The majority of undecided voters are not bigots or cynics - they're just waiting for him to invite them in.
Obama has every advantage a candidate could ask for, and Tuesday night may be his opportunity, not just to extend his lead in the polls, but to upset the undisputed champion of the town hall meeting.