Although the pressure on John McCain and Barack Obama can't be anything like what Sarah Palin experienced last week, the two are still performing under the bright lights of an unforgiving American public when they debate this evening.
The armchair quarterbacks at home all know how to debate much better than they do. And they'll be hurling epithets at the television screen when their candidate misses an opportunity to verbally mangle his opponent or launch a one-liner that will soar the politician into the Lloyd Bentsen Hall of Fame.
One thing is certain: we're a tough crowd.
On the surface, it can be argued that McCain has the home-field advantage. The town-hall format is something he prefers and has demonstrated much skill in.
The format allows for direct questioning of the candidates by the audience, rather than
a robot Jim Lehrer, who asked the questions last month during the first presidential debate. NBC's Tom Brokaw is moderating the event tonight.
Unlike Gwen Ifill, who moderated the vice presidential debate last week, Brokaw – as far as we know – is not writing a book on either candidate so the issue of bias, which blew up between partisans in chat rooms all over the Internet, is off the table. But then is bias ever off the table?
How to win
So what are the keys to victory? Much like when Terry Bradshaw and Mike Ditka outline what each team must do in this hallowed and sacred part of the year known as Football Season, we've asked a couple of armchair political quarterbacks to help us analyze tonight's debate.
In this corner...
O's Five Principals of Combat
1. Error free ball: The trajectory of this campaign will not change unless O makes a real mistake that plays into a negative storyline (inexperience, elite/arrogant). And the history of presidential debates is that they usually alter the fundamentals of a campaign only when a candidate makes a major mistake that plays into a negative typecast. Thus, no mistakes on something that matters.
2. Counter-punch like Muhammad Ali: Ali, one of the greatest heavyweights ever, knocked out big punchers like Foreman, Norton, and Frazier by counter-punching. Like Ali, Obama needs to hit back when McCain attacks, because voters absolutely want to know that the person in the Oval Office will stand up and fight for them, and because McCain's chin will be exposed when he bull-rushes Obama.
3. Be Michael Corleone and not Sonny or Fredo: Obama can't be like Sonny and go in swinging away without a real plan and he can't be Fredo and not fight back. He needs to be Michael – smart and shrewd in taking on his opponent.
And being Michael in this debate – and campaign – means homing in on a character compare-and-contrast focused on "who do you trust to make the right economic decisions for you and your family."
Trust on the economy is where Obama wins when he counter-punches – it is the cut above McCain's eye that he should just pound on at every opportunity (as Biden did in the VP debate).
4. It is Oprah, not a Harvard vs. Yale debate: The public watches these debates to get a sense of the character of the candidates. Voters are not scoring it like a Harvard versus Yale debate, but watch it the same way they would watch Oprah.
Given that it is a town-hall style debate involving direct interaction with the audience, the premium on connecting in terms of a candidate's character is even higher than in a moderated debate.
Candidates have made mistakes in the past that badly hurt them – not just because of what they said – but how they looked. Bush Sr. at his watch; Nixon's darting eyes; Gore sighs.
5. You don't have to win: Obama does not have to win in a conventional sense. He just has to avoid doing anything that changes the fundamentals of the campaign. Thus, don't let a need to win the debate lead to Obama being "hot" or "out of character."
In this corner...
The Five Things John McCain Must Do
1. Be stern but calm. Don't appear angry. Angry John McCain is not reassuring. Keep it in check. Your temperament is an issue, don’t fuel the concerns.
2. Speak to Americans who are sitting at home on their sofa scared about the threat to their way of life. Show them you understand. Talk passionately about middle-class Americans the same way you speak with deep conviction about our brave men and women in uniform.
3. Give those same people the confidence you can lead them through this crisis with an agenda of tax cuts, economic growth, and energy independence that creates American jobs and keeps energy dollars in the USA. Tell them that's why you want to be their president.
At the moment, Americans don’t care as much that you were right about The Surge as they want to see someone who will protect the middle class. That’s not your wheelhouse, but it’s the best shot you have at turning this race around.
4. Take on Keating 5 and turn it on Obama. Own it. Talk about how it changed you into a bipartisan reformer. Challenge Obama to describe his life defining experiences that have prepared him to serve. Remind Americans of the Obama experience deficit in dramatic fashion.
Challenge him to cite the great bipartisan accomplishment of his career before you rip off the litany substantive bipartisan achievements you own.
5. Give the performance of your life. Now is your moment. Tonight's your format. The bleeding in red states must stop now or a Obama landslide could start to manifest itself. Tonight's an elimination game. Play like there's no tomorrow.
With this information, download your John McCain bingo card or your Barack Obama bingo card and let the games begin. The debate begins at 9pm (ET) and will be broadcast on all network and cable news programs. It will also be streamed on the Internet.