Elephant in the Room: Debate Edition

by Theo Francis and Jane Sasseen Early in the first presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer asked what seemed to us to be one of the most salient questions of the entire event, if not the campaign itself:

by Theo Francis and Jane Sasseen

Early in the first presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer asked what seemed to us to be one of the most salient questions of the entire event, if not the campaign itself: “[W]hat are you going to have to give up, in terms of the priorities that you would bring as president of the United States, as a result of having to pay for the financial rescue plan?”

The same could be asked of having to deal with the financial and economic crisis more broadly. With unemployment rising, the credit markets worsening, the Federal Reserve buying up short-term debt to keep companies liquid, recession fears growing, bailouts going global, foreclosures showing no signs of slowing, Bernanke contemplating interest-rate cuts, and 401(k) balances tanking as the stock-market has its worst year since 1937, the question seems more pressing than ever.

When Jim Lehrer asked the question, both John McCain and Barack Obama effectively dodged the question. Will they do so again?

Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic campaign strategist and partner of marketing and public-relations firm Zimmerman Edelstein Inc., bets no. "That's going to be absolutely essential," he says. The debate, and potentially the election, could go go to the candidate "who speaks to issue more specifically."

Still, several factors could militate against a frank exchange on the topic, strategists and analysts say. For one thing, there's the debate's town-hall format: Audience members are bound to have questions about the economy, but they may not explicitly ask what the candidates would change in their proposals.

End-of-campaign dynamics usually call for the front-runner -- Obama in this case -- to play it safe; that could mean fewer specifics even than Joe Biden offered in the vice-presidential debate, when he said the administration might have to hold off on its plan to double foreign aid. And then there's the perennial problem of being concrete on the campaign trail: "Anytime you get specific with prescriptions, it’s a target for the other side," says Greg Valliere, a political analyst for the Stanford Group.

However well they address Lehrer's question, much of the discussion is bound to center on the economy, the single most important issue for most Americans. Interest in economic news surged to an unusually high 70%, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press reports -- and that was six days ago. Americans' "satisfaction with the way things are going" has fallen to 9%, the lowest Gallup has recorded. (That's not to say other issues have vanished; health-care remains important, for example.)

Dissatisfaction tends to give the edge to the party not in the White House, Gallup notes. Moreover, a majority of voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on the economy, and they trust Democrats more on 9 other big-ticket issues as well, from national security to taxes, Rasmussen Reports says. All of which helps explain Obama's steady lead in the polls. Yet it's not all rosy for Democrats: a majority would replace Congress en masse if they could.

It all adds up to a massive economic headache for McCain: Voters want to hear about the economy, but it's shaping up to be such a bad issue for the GOP that many expect him to try to change the topic, focusing instead on Obama's character -- Rev. Wright anyone? -- and experience. That gives Obama an opening to accuse McCain of trying to change the subject -- but if any of the criticism sticks, it could work for the Republican candidate. To the extent that Obama manages to convince voters that he'll be strong addressing the economy -- and that he has their interests at heart -- he'll come out ahead.

Throughout it all, expect to hear a lot about the ubiquitous middle class. Now, however, Pew offers a portrait of the 53% of Americans who identify themselves as belonging to that crucial group: Half of them earn less than $52,285 a household, but believe a family of four needs $70,000 to live a middle-class lifestyle; 67% say they're doing better than their parents -- but less than half think their kids will do better than them; 23% say they just meet expenses or fall short.

Crisis comes in many flavors, however, and with four weeks until the vote, plenty could reshape the race: Another flare-up in the Caucasus, or in the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan-India region, could burnish McCain's foreign-policy credentials in voters' eyes; the slowly unfolding inquiry into Sarah Palin's firing of an Alaska state police official could further weaken her appeal, or take away a dark cloud.

Yet without a "big gaffe from Obama or a geopolitical crisis, McCain is looking like an underdog to say least," Valliere says. Unexpressed racism could also mean lower support than polls indicate.

Oh, and while you're watching the debate, be sure to really watch. As William A. Gentry noted in a recent piece on nonverbal communication in the first debate, what the candidates do when they aren't talking can be pretty important as well.

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