The Music City mashup is underway.
In the second of three presidential debates, the pressure sits squarely tonight on Republican John McCain, who is faltering in the polls as the economy tanks, and who has bragged that he excels in the town hall set-up.
McCain would seem to need to score some major points against Democrat Barack Obama with only one primetime debate remaining and less than four weeks left until Election Day. It's unclear, however, whether the town hall format -- in which the questions are coming from voters -- will provide the opportunity to continue his campaign's recent character critique of Obama.
On the campaign trail, McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin have been asking who Obama really is and what he truly believes, and citing his ties to William Ayers, who helped start a radical group responsible for a series of bombings of government buildings in the early 1970s. But if the selected voters don't ask those kinds of questions, McCain would have to take a noticeable verbal detour to get there.
Moderator Tom Brokaw, the former NBC news anchor, selected a handful of questions from the 6 million-plus submitted online, and will also choose questioners from among 80 undecided voters, chosen by Gallup and sharing the stage with the candidates at Belmont University in Nashville.
While McCain's campaign has been on the offensive lately, his wife said today that Obama has "waged the dirtiest campaign in American history.” She told the Tennessean newspaper during a visit to a children's hospital that McCain will set the record straight tonight.
"What I have found is that it’s necessary to make sure the American people understand what we have to say, what we stand for as a husband and wife, and what we will do for the American people if we’re lucky enough to be elected,” Cindy McCain said.
The first question is about, of course, the economic meltdown.
Asked about what help older people could expect, Obama used the opportunity to bash the Bush administration's policies. The $700 billion rescue package is only a first step, he said, and now Americans need help with foreclosures and other struggles.
"The middle class needs a rescue package," he said.
McCain used the question to highlight his plan to fix the economy through energy independence, tax cuts, and spending restraint. "We've got to have a package of reforms," he said.
Asked who he would appoint as treasury secretary, McCain mentioned names including former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and billionaire investor Warren Buffet.
Obama named Buffet as well, and made sure to note that he has his support.
Asked what's in the bailout for ordinary Americans, McCain criticized "greed and excess" on Wall Street and noted that he largely suspended his campaign to push for more oversight in the rescue package.
McCain then said that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants that had to be taken over by the federal government, were the catalyst for the meltdown -- and said their failings had been abetted by Obama and his "cronies."
Obama answered that broader deregulation in the financial sector is at fault -- and said that McCain until recently was a champion of deregulation. "I've got to correct a little bit of Senator McCain's history, not surprisingly," he said.
The candidates are walking around the red-carpeted stage, microphones in hand, to answer questions. After barely looking at Obama during their first debate Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi, McCain is directly addressing him, calling him, "My friend" -- which in McCain's parlance is not a term of endearment.
McCain used a question about skepticism about Washington to rail against Obama. "Let's look at our records and not just our rhetoric," McCain said. "This is the most liberal big-spending record in the Senate."
Obama hit back, saying that McCain is wrong for proposing to continue all of President Bush's tax cuts and to also cut the federal corporate tax rate. That will take money out of the system that is needed for investments in energy independence, healthcare, and education.
A teacher making $35,000 a year has a difficult time tightening their belt when corporate CEOs who make much more are living high on the hog, Obama said.
McCain insisted that Obama wants to raise taxes, including on many small businesses, and compared him to Herbert Hoover for raising taxes during an economic downturn.
"Let's not raise anybody's taxes," McCain said.
Obama disputed McCain's characterization, saying that he wants to cut taxes for anyone making less than $250,000 a year, which covers 95 percent of Americans. He would let Bush's tax cuts lapse in 2010 for taxpayers earning more than that.
"The Straight Talk express lost a wheel on that one," Obama said.
The candidates agreed on the need -- and opportunity for more jobs -- in alternative energy. But McCain put more emphasis on nuclear power, asserting that Obama opposes its expansion.
Obama disputed that, and criticized McCain's record on funding alternative energy.
McCain responded by mentioning an energy bill that included tax breaks for Big Oil, and pointed out that he voted against it. And who voted for it? "That one," he said, motioning toward Obama.
They clashed over healthcare: Obama said McCain would give with one hand with a tax credit, but take away with another by making employer-paid benefits taxable. McCain said Obama would impose fines on families and businesses if they don't provide healthcare.
The first foreign policy question didn't come until an hour into the 90-minute debate.
McCain used it to contrast his experience and judgment in international affairs with Obama's. "He does not understand our international challenges. We don't have time for on-the-job training."
Obama said it's true that he doesn't understand -- why the United States invaded Iraq instead of going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan. By supporting Bush on the war, McCain wasted billions of dollars, Obama said.
Asked by Brokaw when the United States should use military force in a humanitarian crisis when national security is not at stake, Obama said there are times of a moral obligation -- such as the genocide in Rwanda.
"We do have to consider it part of our national interest," he said.
McCain replied that the United States must do whatever it can to prevent genocide, but the president must understand limits.
"You have to temper your decisions," he said.
McCain, citing Teddy Roosevelt, said that he believes in speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Obama, he said, did not do that by saying publicly that US forces should be prepared to go into Pakistan to go after Osama bin Laden.
Obama answered the criticism that he's "green behind the ears" and just spouting off, saying that McCain has repeatedly misrepresented what he said, which was that if there was clear intelligence of bin Laden's whereabouts and Pakistan would not act, US forces should.
He then said that McCain was not a sober statesman when he joked about bombing Iran.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.