October 8, 2008, 10:35 am
NASHVILLE - Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama provided enough direct answers or personal, emotive moments during Tuesday night's debate, according to three audience members who posed questions to them, though Mr. Obama won quite a bit of goodwill by staying afterward to shake hands and sign autographs while Mr. McCain left.
Two of the audience members - a registered Republican who supported Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primaries, and an undecided independent who was leaning toward Mr. Obama - discussed their feelings about the debate in telephone interviews late Tuesday night and this morning. A third described his impressions last night by phone, but asked not to be quoted.
The Republican, Lindsey Trella, a family business consultant, said she was disappointed that both men used her question - should health care be treated as a marketable commodity? - to lay out their own health care plans and take jabs at each other. Neither gave her a Yes or No.
"I came away thinking John McCain has a position that supports marketable health care, whereas I think Obama supports affordable health care in a universal sense though he wasn't really specific," Ms. Trella said. "Personally I don't think health care should be a marketable commodity - under the current system, too many people are excluded, and I think that's sad in this country."
What is more, neither candidate took advantage of the town hall format and tried to engage on a personal level with Ms. Trella, as Bill Clinton was famous for doing. It turns out Ms. Trella has a compelling personal story: She is a breast cancer survivor who lost her job and, under Cobra, saw her premiums rise to $800 a month before she eventually found work with insurance. She has been a survivor for 12 years.
"I was a little surprised that neither of them ever turned their answers into personal conversations, but I guess they were under time limits," Ms. Trella said.
Ms. Trella said that on the whole, she was more impressed with Mr. Obama during the debate, and that she now planned to vote for him.
"Obama talked at one point about responsibility, Americans have acted responsibly or should do so, while government really hasn't - I liked that," she said. "McCain, I felt more like he went over points he had already made, and went over some set answers. There wasn't anything he clarified, in terms of what he would do."
The independent who was leaning toward Mr. Obama, Ingrid Jackson, said she was also disappointed that the candidates did not specifically answer her question within the time frame that she sought. Ms. Jackson asked at the debate, "What you would do within the first two years to make sure that Congress moves fast as far as environmental issues, like climate change and green jobs?"
Again, both men delivered their talking points by highlighting the generalities of their plans without saying anything new, and took shots at each other's ideas. Each said the environmental challenges for the nation were crucial, but neither offered a timetable of action that satisfied Ms. Jackson's sense of urgency.
"Neither of them was direct enough, and there was a little bickering and back and forth that I did not like, that did not look good overall," Ms. Jackson said. "But we're toward the end of the election, I guess bickering is just how it's going to be."
She said she was most turned off by the moment when Mr. Obama asked the moderator, Tom Brokaw, for time to give a follow-up answer, and Mr. McCain interjected that if Mr. Obama received extra time, he should get it too.
"That seemed really immature and snappish to me," she said.
Ms. Jackson, who is black, said she related more to Mr. Obama, especially his reference to his single mother at the end of the debate. But she added that she is craving strong leadership most of all, and "could definitely be swayed" if she saw that from Mr. McCain. She said she did not sense that last night, and planned to vote for Mr. Obama.
Both women, as well as the third audience member, were especially emphatic about their feelings on the two men's performance after the debate. All three said that Mr. McCain shook hands with several audience members and then left fairly quickly. Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, stuck around to shake far more hands, pose for pictures, sign autographs, and answer more questions, including from people who had been on stage but did not get a chance to ask their questions. Only when Secret Service agents told them it was time to go did the couple leave (upon which they headed for a post-debate fundraiser at Al and Tipper Gore's house nearby).
"McCain leaving right afterward was pretty shocking to me - even some of the big McCain fans among us were really surprised he did that," Ms. Jackson said. "I thought the Obamas came off like real people much more in the end."
Ms. Trella added: for, "I was very impressed that the Obamas stayed til the very end, shook everyone's hand, and just seemed very accessible. I think they won some people over by just sticking around and seeming happy to talk more."