The presidential race's recent turn toward character attacks surprises us about as much as Clay Aiken admitting he was gay: With the election now less than a month away and Obama maintaining a solid lead in the polls, the McCain campaign is deploying his long-reserved cards — Ayers, Rezko, and Wright. Obama is responding with the more substantive Keating Five scandal. And it’s in this friendly atmosphere that the candidates will meet tonight in Nashville for their second debate. It’s town-hall style, but with rigid rules: no follow-up questions from either the audience of uncommitted voters or moderator Tom Brokaw are allowed, and candidates are prohibited from asking each other direct questions or pulling an Al Gore or Rick Lazio and straying from their designated areas. But it’s clear McCain needs to do something dramatic to change the direction of this race.
• John Dickerson wonders if either candidate will be called out by an undecided voter — a “Ponytail Guy” — for the low-road politics of the last couple of days. McCain is at greater risk, since he’s “a Republican candidate on the defensive about his ability to handle the problems regular folks face while also raising issues about his opponent's character and judgment.” [Slate]
• Noam Scheiber contends McCain has to “go dramatic” tonight, and he has two ways to do so: He could “race back to maverick land” by railing against Wall Street (and even House Republicans), or he could “double down on the character attacks” by “explicitly invoking” Bill Ayers or Reverend Wright. Neither option is very promising, which is why McCain may go “for some combination of the two.” [Stump/New Republic]
• Mark Halperin says that besides moderator Tom Brokaw, one of the most important people tonight will be “[w]hichever audience member asks the most challenging question to Obama.” [Page/Time]
• Chuck Todd and friends say McCain is “in need of a game-changer.” By a twenty-point margin in a new poll, “voters said that the Dems bested their GOP counterparts at the first two debates.” Is it possible Obama and Biden are getting “the ‘change’ benefit of the doubt which then translates into easy debate poll victories?” [First Read/MSNBC]
• Michael Tomasky thinks McCain “better be careful” tonight if he’s planning on trying to paint Obama as a “terrorist-lover.” When undecided voters ask questions, they “seek actual answers” about things like education, health care, paying for college, jobs, etc. Recall that “[a]lmost every time McCain attacked during the first debate,” real-time voter reaction turned negative. [Guardian UK]
• Rick Klein and Hope Ditto write that McCain and the GOP enter the debate with the realization “that the Republican ticket has a dwindling number of chances to reclaim the narrative.” If the debate continues the theme of the week, “we will continue down the path of least subsistence into out-and-out, guilt-by-association name-calling.” But will “nasty attacks register when compared to the psychological blows arriving in mailboxes these days, depicting shattered 401(k)s?” [Note/ABC News]
• Katherine Q. Seelye concurs that “McCain needs to do something dramatic to halt his slide.” He could “present a hotter, more confrontational persona, while Mr. Obama will show his cooler self, both in the sense of remaining unruffled and in staying at more of a remove from the audience.” [Caucus/NYT]
• John B. Judis takes issue with the format, in which “uncommitted” voters will be the only ones asking questions. There’s really no such thing as an “uncommitted” voter, and anyone who claims they are “uncommitted” at this point are really “capable of formulating a telling question to the candidates.” [Plank/New Republic]
For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.