This "town hall" debate between Barack Obama and John McCain is neither.

Media criticism.
Oct. 6 2008 5:28 PM

This "Town Hall" Debate Is Neither

It's more a dance recital than an honest head-to-head between the candidates.

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To appreciate how good Clinton was at this sort of political theater, you need only recall how bad Al Gore was at it in the 2000 town haller that matched him against George W. Bush. Here's the play-by-play from the Oct. 18, 2000, by the Washington Post's David Von Drehle:

The bigger man never looked so big as he did inside the debate hall tonight. Vice President Al Gore has a couple of inches and a couple of pounds on Texas Gov. George W. Bush—but it might as well have been feet and tons. With his bold strides around the room, with his large gestures and his booming voice, and especially with his aggressive attempts to pin Bush to the mat on one painful issue after another, Gore seemed to fill 90 percent of the space.

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Gore's scenery-chewing proved to be too much. At one junction, as Bush answered a question, "Gore moved from his stool toward the governor," drawing closer and closer "until he loomed like a shadow at the climax of a film noir," Von Drehle writes.

Expect John McCain to continue to distance himself from Barack Obama during the Nashville recital, avoiding his opponent's eyes and reducing the opening handshake to the briefest of touches—just as he did in the Oxford, Miss., debate. Physical disassociation is McCain's way of saying that not only is Obama not ready to lead, he's not ready to share the same stage.

McCain's age and war injures, which make him look vulnerable, will put him at a disadvantage in the Nashville setting. McCain makes a step look like a lurch, a smile look like a grimace. Any attempt to ape Clinton by entering Obama's space for political effect will only make McCain look doddering. But if he simply stands there, the supple, feline Obama will upstage him with his vitality, even when standing still.

A robot just can't dance with a cat.

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I'd like to put in good words for "gotchas" and the need for "filters." Without them, the campaign will be a series of platitudinous, mendacious speeches. Send your good words to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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