Four Weeks To Go

Where's Bubba when you need him?

Bill Clinton proved the master of the "town hall" presidential debate during his 1992 campaign, and after Tuesday night's snoozefest, it's safe to say that both Barack Obama and John McCain are no Bill Clinton.

It's also safe to say that the biggest loser in the second McCain-Obama face-off was the format. After watching even some of the "Real People" in the studio audience fighting sleep, it may be time to retire the town hall debate as just So '90s and So Ten Minutes Ago.

Not that the candidates didn't have a chance to make the format work for them.

The evening's second question, from real person Oliver Clark, was: "Through this economic crisis, most of the people that I know have had a difficult time. And through this bailout package, I was wondering what it is that's going to actually help those people out." Both McCain and Obama blew the opportunity for a Full Clintonian answer filled with compassion, empathy and understanding that oh by the way, deconstructed for everyone the complexities of what the hell is going with the economy in clear, plain and simple language.

Instead McCain brayed about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while Obama delivered a mini-lecture about global credit. If you're wondering how Elvis himself would have handled it, check out this classic excerpt from the 1992 town hall debate, unearthed by Slate.

The bottom line on Debate, The Sequel: Obama won by not losing. With all the polls and all the issues moving in his rival's direction, McCain needed a dramatic, or at least a substantive, victory a "game changer" per the political writers' 2008 campaign cliche - and didn't come close to getting it.

Here's a look at the Top 10 Lines of the Night:

1-"That One." Already under fire for acting contemptuously, not to mention downright rude, towards his foe, McCain referred to Obama at one point as "that one," an oddly dehumanizing construction perhaps intended to emphasize his "otherness" "psst, did you know he's black?" that was underscored by McCain's refusal to even look at his opponent. Expect the cable pundits to chop it up over this one, especially after McCain stiffed Obama on a post-debate handshake.

2-"There are some things I don't understand." Obama's best line of the night came after McCain had attacked him for "not understanding" the situation in Iraq, reprising his argument that the Democrat cannot be trusted with national security. Obama stipulated there are matters he does not understand, such as, um, why the U.S. went into Iraq in the first place, the same question lots of Americans have been asking for several years.

3-"Green behind the ears." In the same way, Obama characterized the attack on him as untested as McCain's belief that the Democrat is "green behind the ears." I laughed when I heard it, thinking that Obama had conflated two phrases indicating inexperience - "wet behind the ears" and "green" - but the Urban Dictionary defines the phrase as "na~Aive, young, inexperienced, unknowing, unripe." Also, for the musically inclined, you can Google a song called "Green Behind the Ears" by Travis.

4-"Senator Obama's secret plan." McCain accused Obama of having a secret plan to raise taxes on small business, which added a layer of paranoia to his cranky old guy overall performance. Obama, whose strength as a debater is the counter-punch, came right back on this one to hammer home the money line of his tax plan riff "95 percent of Americans will get a tax cut."

5-"You're not interested in hearing politicians point fingers." Obama mixed his metaphors on this one, but the sentiment he was expressing was right on the money. Despite the McCain's camp characteristically macho pre-debate heavy breathing about their guy going full bore on the attack, the format could not have been more inappropriate for such a debate strategy. As it was, McCain's hits were so repetitive and mostly inconsequential the second time he mentioned Obama funding an overhead projector for a Chicago planetarium as an example of an outrageous earmark, McCain really did sound like the neighborhood old coot yelling at kids to get off his lawn - that Obama brushed them off like lint on his sleeve.

6-"The Straight Talk Express just lost a wheel on that one." Another good Obama counter-punch, this time on McCain's misrepresentation of his tax policy. It's received wisdom in politics never to let an attack go unanswered, but Obama tested the theory by pushing back just hard enough and effectively enough at key times to get the job done without sounding defensive.

7-"It's not hard to fix Social Security." This was McCain's answer to a Real Person who expressed concern about the coming big bill for entitlement programs. Uh, just wondering: if it's not hard, why haven't they done it yet?

8-"I know how to find Osama bin Laden." This was McCain's answer to a very good Real Person question about whether or not the candidates would send ground troops into Pakistan in pursuit of the Al Qaeda leader. Uh, just wondering II: If you know, why haven't you told President Bush?

9-"My Friends." McCain's signature line really got on my nerves about halfway through the debate, when I stopped counting his number of uses of it at 13.

10-"You're standing in the way of my script." This was moderator Tom Brokaw chewing out both McCain and Obama, who stood in front of his teleprompter as the former NBC anchor was trying to read his lines to toss out of the show. It was an appropriate end for the debate, in which Brokaw sounded almost as much like a cranky old guy as McCain, with his incessant whining about the rivals not sticking to the boneheaded rules of the event.

Latest Real Clear Politics compilation of national polls puts Obama up by 5.5 points, and ahead in every crucial battleground state. You can read it here.

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