For better or worse, everyone who isn’t a Detroit Tigers fan will be focused on the second presidential debate tonight (yes, I’ll be tweeting, and no, I don’t think that tweeting during debates is destroying the republic). I’m still not convinced from the data that the first debate was such a big deal in the polls after all, but almost everyone believes it was, which should make the press obsession with debates even more extreme than usual tonight. The election appears to be very close right now, which means even a minor debate-related shift might prove important.
So, what are we looking for? I’ll toss out some questions to think about as we wait for Candy Crowley and the Town Hall format:
* Will Barack Obama be, um, fired up and ready to go? While overheated press coverage of the first debate turned a flat performance into a massive disaster, I certainly agree he was uninspired.
* Is the press itching for an opportunity for the next turn in the story they are telling? I strongly believe that press boredom with the “Romney’s a mess” story throughout September was a major factor in coverage of the first debate, and it’s not unusual for the press to reverse course.
* Can Mitt Romney activate his regular people programming? Romney is a solid debater in general. However, talking to ordinary voters has never been his strength. Still, he should be well-rehearsed for this.
* If Romney is confronted about his various evasions — on his tax plan, on his jobs plan, on his own taxes, and more — how will he handle it? Romney has had a charmed life through about twenty debates over the course of this cycle, rarely serving as the main target of any of his foes. If that streak ends and he’s really pressed, does he have good answers prepared and can he deliver them well?
* And while I don’t think it’s as big a crime as others do, it is true that the focus of the questions so far in this debate series have been quite narrow. Will the Town Hall questioners ask about climate? Immigration? Foreign policy outside of the Middle East? Gay marriage? Wildcard issues such as drug legalization or campaign finance or torture?
I don’t think that debates are or should be all that important to vote choice, but I do enjoy them anyway, and I’ll be watching with those questions in mind.