Up for Debate

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Local politicos, stalwart partisans and even a few undecided voters convened Tuesday night to watch the second debate between senators John McCain and Barack Obama at WOSU @ COSI.

In addition to viewing the televised action at Belmont University in Nashville, Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan and NPR political director Ken Rudin conducted an interactive discussion before and a special live broadcast after the debate. Conan's show also was broadcast live from the WOSU studio on Wednesday.

One Columbus resident asked the good-humored journalists if Columbus really was "the epicenter of the epicenter of the epicenter," and the buzzing confines of the science museum certainly felt that way an hour before the Democratic and Republican hopefuls took the stage for their second war of words.

At times, Conan and Rudin localized campaign issues, fielding questions about Ohio's electoral importance and election-protection issues that became national news in 2000 and 2004. The main focus, though, was on a global financial crisis that has created headlines and headaches for millions of Americans.

The presidential debate, less than a month before the election, came just hours after the bell sounded on another abysmal day on Wall Street.

"Neither Ken nor I are economic analysts -- though we play ones on the radio," Conan joked during a Q&A session.

Still, both men correctly predicted that the economy would be the No.-1 issue -- and that foreign-policy matters slated to fill half of the 90-minute debate would struggle desperately for face time. The two also touched on negativity in recent campaign ads, accuracy of polling results and benefits of the town-hall format.

poll position

The late-September poll conducted by The Dispatch historically has been an accurate barometer of how Ohio votes. Here are results from the mail survey of 2,262 likely voters from Sept. 24-Oct. 3.

Whom do you plan to vote for in the presidential election?

Obama: 49%

McCain: 42%

Undecided: 8%

All others: 1%

Who is more likely to bring about the change this country needs?

Obama: 49%

McCain: 39%

Undecided: 7%

All others: 5%

Audience members and hosts held some hope that it would be harder for candidates to sidestep questions posed by citizens than it was for, say, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to bypass those posed by moderator Gwen Ifill during last week's vice-presidential debate.

That wasn't always the case Tuesday.

Candidates sparred over the unprecedented financial bailout plan, energy policy, health care and protecting U.S. interests from Iran, al-Qaeda and North Korea. Largely, the debate decomposed into circular rhetoric, nitpicking and cumbersome discussion of voting records.

In rare moments of surprise, McCain was the first to bring up alternative energy, Obama the first to mention terrorist attacks.

Moderator Tom Brokaw was visibly flustered at the candidates' complete disregard for protocol that had been rigorously negotiated by the two campaigns.

His constant reminder of time limits received laughs from a COSI crowd that was soundly in Obama's camp but gave McCain applause for several statements on health-care expense and military service.

"I was very pleased that so many people stuck around for so long," said Jane Scott, executive director of the Columbus Metropolitan Club, which hosted the event as part of its CMCpm series. "It was a very engaged audience. The people we have at our events generally respect the political process."