|Is the sun setting on John McCain’s presidential campaign? [Reuters]|
It is a grey and rainy day on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, host city for Tuesday’s second presidential debate between John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, and Barack Obama, his Democratic rival.
The dreary weather seems to match the anxious national mood.
On stock exchanges from Sao Paulo to Shanghai shares tanked on Monday, despite passage of the $700bn bailout bill last week in Washington.
Going into Tuesday’s debate, McCain is facing an awfully tough road to the White House.
His poll numbers, nationwide and in key swing states, are falling nearly as fast as the Dow Jones Index on Wall Street.
With just four weeks to go before election day, McCain is running out of time to come up with a winning strategy.
His hit-it-and-hope kicks toward the net so far have fallen short.
His surprise pick of Sarah Palin as his running-mate energised the Republican base but also scared off a lot of other voters.
His faux-dramatic “intervention” in the bailout backage negotiations not only failed to save the day, but apparently helped do some temporary damage to the deal.
The only long-shot bet that has paid off for McCain is his support of David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Middle East and the so-called surge of troops in Iraq.
Unfortunately, the voters aren’t spending much time thinking about Iraq anymore.
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This debate will be held in the town-hall-style format, with both candidates taking questions from voters in the audience and from email sumbissions.
The live audience is composed of 80 people.
According to one of those who helped negotiate the format, one-third of the members are soft-leaning toward Obama, but could be convinced otherwise; one-third are soft-leaning toward McCain but likewise could change their minds; and one third are truly undecided.
After a mostly passion-free first debate, most observers expect McCain and Obama to mix it up more sharply this time.
“As you get closer to election day it’s normal to swing a little bit harder because you are hungrier for that victory,” says Sybril Bennett, an analyst at Belmont university.
McCain’s campaign advisers say they want to “change the subject” away from the economy, and both McCain and Sarah Palin have launched sharp personal attacks on Obama’s character and patriotism earlier this week.
McCain lashed out at Obama at a rally in New Mexico on Monday. “What has this man accomplished? What is his plan for America?” he asked, rhetorically.
“In short, who is the real Barack Obama?”
That line plays to fears among a certain section of the electorate that Obama is too “exotic”, “foreign” and “not really an American”.
For many people who express these qualms, they are merely cover for that fact that they do not want to vote for a black person.
But negative campaigning risks turning off undecided voters, says Bennett.
“When you turn nasty you alienate people,” she told me.
“Thats a risk that both candidates are taking when they start slinging mud. Right now people want to hear about the economy, the environment, how am I going to pay the bills? How are you going to help me?”
Nashville is famous as the country music capital of the world. Down at the Station Inn on 12th Street one recent night, there was a hot bluegrass jam session going on.
The banjo and fiddle music was cheerful, but the economic bad news from the outside world is ruining the rhythm of everyday life.
“The financial situation, the economy is the big issue,” said guitar player JC Craig. “I’m not very happy with the economy right now.”
Craig is planning to vote for McCain.
Paying the bills is a big concern for the tavern’s manager, Ann Sawyer.
A weary-seeming woman in her late fifties, she has had to cancel her dreams of retirement and will keep working to make ends meet.
“My candidate is Obama. He can make the right changes for all of us,” Sawyer said.
“And I’m disgusted by the last eight years.”
In Nashville, just like everywhere else in the US, people are hoping the election will herald a sweeter song and not another mournful ballad.