Beware of Ponytail Guy
How town-hall debates can go very wrong for a candidate.
Update, Oct. 7, 5:49 p.m.: Ponytail Guy responds!
And while there are risks for Obama, of the two candidates, John McCain has the most to be worried about from this year's Ponytail Guy. Like Bush, he is a Republican candidate on the defensive about his ability to handle the problems regular folks face while also raising issues about his opponent's character and judgment.
McCain has gotten more aggressive in recent days because the landscape is looking bleak for him. Obama has a strong lead in the national polls and surveys in early battleground states. Obama has a commanding lead in Iowa and New Mexico, states that Bush won. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—states John Kerry won where McCain has the best chance—poll averages have Obama ahead by more than five points. McCain's got to do something to change the dynamic.
Tuesday's debate is one of the last chances McCain will have to make his case in front of a big audience. But his aides know that it might also be the toughest venue to make the anti-Obama case. Depending on how McCain responds, criticism can very easily be turned by his opponent into evidence that McCain lacks the temperament for the job. Obama is running an ad that labels McCain erratic, and Obama aides responded to McCain's liar charge by calling it an "angry tirade." The message is sinking in. In a focus group organized last week by pollster Peter Hart, the biggest concern voters of all persuasions had about McCain was about his temperament. McCain knows he has to be on his best behavior during the debate.
The 41st president's run-in with Ponytail Guy left such a mark that it haunted his son throughout his campaigns. I remember watching a town hall during the 2000 campaign in which George W. Bush consistently refused to call on a man waving from the middle of the crowd like he was trying to flag a rescue plane. Bush pretended not to see him but let on afterwards that he'd seen him and avoided calling on him for fear of creating a moment. In 1996, when Bob Dole was given the chance to attack Clinton's character in a town-hall debate, he demurred, saying the debate should be about the issues.
This year's campaign shows how partisans on both sides go after the journalists who ask questions they don't like. During the Democratic primaries, Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, and George Stephanopoulos were all savaged for the questions they asked and how they asked them. Last week, Gwen Ifill was attacked for a book she hasn't written about a subject she isn't addressing.
"Real" people (by which I mean people who don't do this for a living) who are asking the questions may be harder to rough up. Or maybe not. On Tuesday night, if Son of Ponytail Guy asks a question, he can rest assured that he will receive a thorough going-over in the blogosphere. So I suggest all prospective questioners Google themselves, make sure they're on good terms with their co-workers, and wipe clean their Facebook page. If they don't—or even if they do—they could become the story very quickly.