Tuesday’s debate in Nashville was supposed to be John McCain’s night. His favorite format, a town-hall meeting with ordinary voters. His moment to unveil a new proposal for pulling the economy out of its slump. And, most important, one of his last chances to change the direction of a campaign in which undecided voters have been steadily drifting toward his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama.
“Americans are angry, they’re upset, and they’re a little fearful,” McCain said. “It’s our job to fix the problem.”
But whenever McCain expressed concern for citizens worried about their jobs and their savings, so too did Obama -- with a telling contrast in their terms.
McCain talked about drilling for oil and building nuclear power plants, parts of an energy policy that he said would help restart the economy. Obama, taking aim at a group of voters that may decide the election, seized every opportunity to talk about issues that women cite as special concerns: education and healthcare.
McCain said providing healthcare for citizens was “a responsibility”; Obama went further, saying healthcare was “a right,” and he specifically mentioned insurance coverage for maternity care and mammograms.
The late conservative economist Jude Wanniski once dubbed Republicans the “Daddy Party” and Democrats the “Mommy Party.” On Tuesday, Obama seemed to prove his point by laying out the more expansive government role in caring for middle-class Americans. And he mentioned not only his mother, but his wife and grandmother too.
If McCain’s principal mission was to change the course of the campaign, it was difficult to find evidence that he succeeded. In a debate that served largely as an empathy competition, the two candidates battled to something like a draw. Most of the time, they repeated arguments they had often made before -- most recently in their first debate 12 days ago.
The only new element was a proposal from McCain to order the Treasury to buy $300 billion of troubled mortgages directly from homeowners and negotiate new fixed-rate mortgages based on the homes’ depressed values. The $700-billion financial bailout plan that Congress passed last week allows the Treasury to buy mortgages directly but does not require it. Obama has said the Treasury should consider buying mortgages but has not demanded it.
McCain did not spend much time on the proposal during the debate, though, and it was unclear that his plan was the kind of dramatic stroke that might stop what has appeared to be a gradual increase in voters’ support for Obama.
Most polls have shown a shift of voters, especially women and self-described independents, toward the Democratic candidate over the last three weeks. That movement has coincided with the sharpening of the nation’s economic crisis.
In an NBC-Wall Street Journal Poll released Monday, 6 in 10 voters said the economy would be the most important issue in determining their vote, and those respondents favored Obama by a wide margin.
Throughout the campaign, voters have said they considered the Democrat more able to handle economic problems, even as they said they considered the Republican more able to handle foreign policy issues.
McCain sought to remind voters Tuesday of their doubts about Obama’s experience and knowledge on international issues, chiding the Democrat for stating openly that he would send U.S. troops to pursue terrorist leader Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan.
“Teddy Roosevelt used to say . . . talk softly but carry a big stick. Sen. Obama likes to talk loudly,” McCain said.
He said the nation needs “a cool hand at the tiller” and, later, “a steady hand at the tiller.”
But if McCain partisans were hoping to see the Arizona senator follow the advice of his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to “take the gloves off” and attack Obama more vigorously, they probably came away disappointed.
McCain repeated oft-made charges that Obama was a liberal who never bucked his party’s leaders, a big spender who would raise taxes, and an inexperienced hand at foreign policy -- but he said it in terms considerably milder than what he has used on the campaign trail.
Nor did McCain mention Palin, a favorite of GOP conservatives. In an effort to show his bipartisan bent, he did mention independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, three times.
Obama, meanwhile, repeated his charges that McCain had helped deregulate the financial institutions that are at the root of the economic crisis and that the Republican sought tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. But he spent most of his time emphasizing his own empathy for the voters’ economic concerns.
He used the word “you” or “your” more than 90 times, as in: “A lot of you, I think, are worried about your jobs, your pensions, your retirement accounts, your ability to send your child or your grandchild to college.”
He mentioned the middle class six times. (McCain mentioned “middle-income” Americans three times.) And Obama noted the price of gasoline in Nashville -- $3.80 a gallon.
Aides for both campaigns had prepared their candidates for an aggressive debate.
McCain has sought to refocus attention since last weekend on Obama’s background in an effort to reinforce voters’ doubts about the first-term Illinois senator.
McCain’s aides concede that the four-term Arizona senator probably will lose the election if the financial crisis remains voters’ top concern.
Earlier Tuesday, the McCain campaign released four separate statements highlighting Obama’s past associations with William Ayers, a University of Illinois professor who co-founded the militant Weathermen group in the late 1960s, which planted bombs in government buildings.
“Barack Obama is just not being straight with the American people,” said McCain’s spokesman, Brian Rogers, who called Ayers an “unrepentant terrorist.”
In response, Obama released a new TV ad Tuesday calling McCain “out of ideas” and “out of touch.”
The ad accuses McCain of using “smears that have been proven false” in an effort to divert voters’ attention from the threat of losing their jobs, homes and savings.
Obama’s campaign also has fired back this week by releasing a video and other details about McCain’s role in the Keating Five scandal of the 1980s.
McCain and four other senators were accused of intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, an Arizona businessman who headed a savings and loan that later failed. Keating was sent to jail for fraud.
The Senate Ethics Committee cleared McCain of wrongdoing but said he “exercised poor judgment.”
By comparison, the candidates on Tuesday evening were models of courteous restraint. Disciplined, perhaps, by the fact that they were talking directly to ordinary voters, McCain made no mention of Ayers, and Obama made no mention of the Keating Five.
Times staff writers Bob Drogin and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.