Candidates are halftime show

Pucin is a Times staff writer.

“Monday Night Football” isn’t the must-be-there national gathering place it might have been in Howard Cosell’s heyday, but it’s still a big deal.

A big enough deal that on election eve, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama appeared during halftime via prerecorded interviews, answering questions asked by ESPN mainstay Chris Berman and on Westwood One radio’s pregame and halftime shows by veteran sportscaster Jim Gray.

What we got with Berman was a tightly edited three-minute halftime show. But instead of bone-crushing hits in a highlight reel, we got well-rehearsed answers about lessons learned from high school coaches -- and nothing that revealed anything about the heart of either candidate.


The point never was to elicit some sharp parsing of each candidate’s economic plan or uncover a short shelf-life scandal on what each candidate spends on clothing.

The point was, for candidates and interviewers alike, to pump up the ratings, electoral or Nielsen (“Monday Night Football” had 10.82 million viewers last week, according to Nielsen Media Research).

The point was, on the night before a historic presidential election in which an African American will be our next president or a woman will be our vice president, Obama and McCain chose to speak to Americans via a football game.

As Berman, seemingly humbled by it all, said in an interview with The Times during the first quarter of the game, “Hopefully, after this, when people go to the polls tomorrow, we gave them one more thought, one extra feeling, about the men they were going to vote on.”

This wasn’t a speech, it wasn’t a commercial, it wasn’t “60 Minutes.” It replaced day-old NFL highlights and that wasn’t a bad thing.

Obama brightened when Berman asked him what one thing about sports he’d like to change.

“I think it is about time we had playoffs” in college football, Obama said. “I’m fed up with these computer rankings and this and that and the other. Get eight teams -- the top eight teams right at the end. You got a playoff.” Obama may just have earned some USC votes.

McCain let loose his goofy side when Berman wondered what it was McCain would like voters to remember as they go to the polls.

“He. Could. Go. All. The. Way,” McCain said, mimicking Berman’s signature touchdown call.

Berman cracked up.

Obama was interviewed with Jacksonville (Fla.) Municipal Stadium in the background but without any gathering of fans behind him -- and before he received word that his grandmother had died.

McCain stood on an airport tarmac in Indianapolis with a crowd behind him.

Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, said there was no reason why Obama spoke from what is called a live spot setup, where there were no distractions, or why McCain had a noisy, sign-waving group behind him.

“Each candidate preferred to do it that way,” Doria said.

In the radio interviews, Obama again lobbied for a college football playoff while McCain suggested that though he belongs to a political party that is notably anti-union, he is passionate about a boxers union, a cause he has long championed.

Both candidates came across more relaxed than either interviewer.

Berman told The Times that he woke Monday with butterflies in his stomach.

“I was a history major at Brown University,” Berman said. “We’re Americans voting in a presidential election, a pretty historic election, and I’m the last guy to see them, at least in this format. What a responsibility. I was not going to uncover the depths of their economics plan or anything. I just wanted to present the men.”

As far as whether it had been tempting to ask serious political questions, Doria and Berman said not so much.

“We had discussions internally whether this should be an issue-oriented discussion that dealt with, say, the economy and sports, or to humanize them. We ultimately went with the latter,” Doria said.