On the campaign trail, a presidential candidate spends most of his public time talking to his base - delivering the soaring speeches and barbed zingers that play to the adoringly partisan masses.
So for John McCain and Barack Obama, the 80 swing voters assembled in Nashville for last night's town-hall-style debate must have come across as the ultimate tough crowd. With their crossed legs and irritated stares, they rivaled the most skeptical New Hampshire undecideds on a chilly January afternoon. And they left the candidates with a daunting rhetorical task: try to move the woman in the blue shirt who had her eyebrows permanently raised. Or the bald guy in the front row who appeared, at all times, to be squinting.
Obama and McCain seemed to sense, from the start, that this was a serious group, angry about the recent spate of bad news, not prone to being swayed by pretty speechmaking. There was no pain-feeling, no lip-reading, no reference to hockey moms or Joe Six-Packs, and few attempts to engage people on any level but the intellectual. Obama's team had done its homework, and he swiftly spouted out the fact that gas cost $3.80 per gallon in Nashville. The voters seemed unimpressed; they asked skeptical questions about the federal financial bailout and how America would find its way through various foreign policy dilemmas.
McCain was expected to fare better in a more freewheeling format, and he was marginally folksier than his opponent: He addressed more voters by name, stood closer to them, and talked to them more directly. At one point, late in the night, he patted a fellow Navy veteran on the shoulder. But most of the time, like Obama, he got nothing back - even when he cracked a joke about needing a hair transplant.
So what proceeded was even-keeled and substantive - and considerably less riveting than a more emotional forum might have been. But make no mistake, it was hostile, too. Each candidate watched the other with a mild smirk. Each seldom addressed the other; at one point, McCain referred to Obama dismissively as "that one."
The swing voters in attendance didn't seem inclined to take sides. These folks, apparently, doubted all politicians equally. "How can we trust either of you with our money," one woman asked, "when both parties got us into this global economic crisis?"
It was moderator Tom Brokaw who seemed more disposed to kindness, though he also seemed intent on imposing some control. (It's hard to know whether he was reacting to last week's vice presidential debate or to its raucous retelling on "Saturday Night Live." In both cases, the candidates didn't always answer the questions asked.)
But because Brokaw was also deferential, averse to interrupting even the longest-winded rants, he was left looking like a weak parent. When the candidates' answers ran long, he chided them ever so gently.
"We're going to have a larger deficit than the federal government does if we don't get this under control," he said at one point.
Brokaw kept appealing to the rules to which the campaigns had agreed. "We worked very hard on this," he insisted. At one point, showing backbone at last, he shut down a request from Obama to provide a follow-up.
Obama took the knock with little protest. McCain, from that point on, tried harder to please, at one point offering: "I'll stop, Tom, and you didn't even wave."
But if Brokaw had won some power, he didn't seem to notice - too focused on the clock and the questions he hoped to squeeze in. "I'm just the hired help here," he said with about 15 minutes left in the proceedings. Finally, the audience broke into laughter.