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Economy Likely To Dominate Presidential Debate

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is also in Nashville attending the debate. And Mara, we just heard about the people asking the questions. How does that change the game plan for the candidates tonight?

MARA LIASSON: Well, Robert, a town meeting format is a really different kind of debate, and it's a lot harder to attack your opponent directly and aggressively if you're standing right next to him on a stage in front of a whole lot of people who are asking you questions. And in the past, we've seen these town hall meeting format debates really reward people who can empathize with the questioner, understand where the audience is coming from. Frank talked about that moment in the Bush-Perot-Clinton town hall debate.

Also body language is important. The moment from that debate became when George H. W. Bush looked down at his watch. It made it seem like he was bored and impatient. But voters value civility. And certainly the voters in that audience want to see a discussion about the problems that affect them. And it's a real challenge to be able to take the attack to your opponent and still do what voters in a town hall meeting expect.

SIEGEL: Well, there are famous moments from these debates. President Bush looking at his watch, as you've described it, and Bill Clinton saying, I feel your pain. But when it comes to voting, actually, have these debates ever really changed the outcome?

LIASSON: I don't know if they've changed the outcome, but they are extremely important events for undecided voters. There are about nine percent of voters still undecided. That's about standard for this point in a race. Debate performance is really important. We know that Obama's debate performance in the first debate helped him - that and the Wall Street financial crisis in terms of his rise in the polls since then - but not just because of who was perceived to have won or done better, but because he accomplished his goal which was to reassure the public that he was a plausible commander in chief.

It's going to be very hard for this debate to be a game changer in the sense of reversing the dynamic of the race for McCain. When you're behind, short of a mistake on the part of your opponent, it's hard to use a debate to completely reverse the dynamic of the race. And obviously that's what McCain comes into this debate wanting to do, make the race once again a referendum on Obama.

SIEGEL: Well, the latest national polls, not to mention polls from lots of key states, show that John McCain has been hurt hard by the economic crisis, and the movement is toward Obama.

LIASSON: There's no doubt about it. We have a bunch of new polls today. They all show Obama up from three to nine percentage points. We also are starting to get the registration numbers in key battleground states. There have been about four million new voters registered, and in a lot of those states Democrats have a registration edge by two to one. In North Carolina it's six to one. So that all gives Obama a pretty big advantage, assuming he can get those voters to the polls.

SIEGEL: Well, put that in the context of the overall map, the Electoral College map. How does it look?

LIASSON: The thing that's important about the map right now is that all the states that are tossups - which means they're within the margin of error - none of them were won by John Kerry in 2004. In other words, all of them are red states that were won by Bush the last time around.

SIEGEL: So Obama is doing much better than the last Democratic candidate...

LIASSON: Yes, no doubt about that. The only state that's a tossup state where McCain is ahead is Indiana.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson speaking to us from Nashville. And you can listen to tonight's debate on many NPR stations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.