Categorized | Election 08, Debates

Economy Drives Town Hall Presidential Debate, Local Opinion Unchanged

BY MATT DURNING //

EL CERRITO – A pensive crowd at the 33 Revolutions Café in El Cerrito watched intently last night as presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama presented distinct plans for addressing the nation’s economic crisis.

Each candidate declared himself better prepared to help bring the country out of what they called the most serious financial disaster since the Great Depression. Most people watching here, however, felt only one man had their best interests at heart.

“Obama is definitely committed to middle class people,” said Lisa Carey, a Berkeley resident. “McCain didn’t say anything like that.”

Held in front of 80 self-identified undecided voters in Nashville, Tenn., the debate reflected the somber national mood and the increasingly high stakes for the contenders.

McCain introduced a new and specific proposal for addressing the national housing crisis. Under his plan, the treasury secretary would buy up $300 billion worth of bad home loans and refinance mortgages to help struggling Americans keep their homes.

McCain’s proposal seems intended to deflect both the widespread misgivings of his economic qualifications and Obama’s continued efforts to portray him as an extension of the Bush administration.

“It’s my proposal, it’s not Sen. Obama’s proposal, it’s not President Bush’s proposal,” he said. “I know how to get America working again, restore our economy and take care of working Americans.”

Obama focused on the need for more government oversight and industry regulation, priorities he said McCain has spent a career fighting against.

“I believe this is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Sen. McCain,” he said.

Obama summarized the Republican economic philosophy as “strip away regulations, consumer protections, let the market run wild, and prosperity would rain down on all of us.” But, he said, “It hasn’t worked out that way.”

The Democratic candidate also identified a need for all Americans to make real sacrifices, particular in response to the energy crisis – a sentiment that seemed to resonate with many in the café audience.

“I like that Obama talked about that people have to make personal sacrifices and start to think about how we use power,” said Gina Barsotti, a school teacher from Richmond. “We can’t just be the way that we are, we actually have to conserve.”

Many in attendance credited the town hall format with maintaining a spirit of civility, even as campaign-trail attacks from both sides have become more personal and acerbic in recent days.

“I think having to answer to people in the audience tempered their fighting,” said Lisa Carey of Berkeley.

But while McCain chose not to directly attack Obama’s background or character, there were moments when he uttered rather pointed personal criticisms of his opponent.

Once, while denouncing Obama for a past Senate vote he cast in favor of an energy bill, McCain pointed towards his opponent and referred to him as “that one.” At another point, McCain said that pinning down Obama’s tax proposals is like “nailing Jell-O to the wall.”

Dial groups conducted by MSNBC and other networks during the debate showed that audiences, most notably independent undecided voters, reacted adversely to such comments. Local viewers agreed.

“McCain showed a little more warmth here and there but he also tried a few jokes that I don’t think came off well,” said Phil Mehas of Richmond.

Kerstin Feist of Albany was more blunt.

“I just feel like McCain is just full of hot air,” she said.

By most accounts the debate did not prove to be a game-changer for either candidate, though a series of online instant polls showed Obama to be the winner, and by a much larger margin than after the first debate.

Even a FoxNews.com poll, won by McCain and Palin following the first two debates, showed Obama winning this round, 62-38 percent.

The final presidential debate will be held Wednesday at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York.

“I have a lot of respect for McCain and always have, but I just think his time is gone,” said Mehas. “Our country just can’t afford to have someone of his generation as president. We need someone with fresh ideas  – hopefully Obama can bring that.”

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