Hofstra is hot.
Debates have become the smoldering core of our presidential races and, as the site of Tuesday's second showdown between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Hofstra University is bringing that heat to Long Island.
With less than a month to Election Day, the focus on that debate would have been intense no matter what the circumstances. Modern campaigns are largely fought through 30-second ads, sound bites, tweets and spin, so these toe-to-toe contests are the best chance voters have to hear a substantive exchange between the men vying to lead the nation. The Oct. 3 presidential debate in Denver, and Thursday's vice presidential throw-down in Kentucky, proved how consequential that can be.
With 65 million people tuned in to the first debate, Romney's inspired performance, coupled with Obama's lackluster showing, tightened and reinvigorated a race that had appeared nearly over but now seems to have only just begun. That upped the ante for Vice President Joe Biden -- whose sharp, aggressive performance before 51 million viewers may have been enough to blunt Romney's momentum -- and for Republican Paul Ryan, who held his own on the national stage and succeeded in projecting the stature for the job.
So now the stage is set for another main event.
The format at Hofstra will be very different from either of the previous debates and should combine the best of each. With Obama and Romney, PBS's Jim Lehrer posed broad questions, all on domestic issues, and allowed a free-form brawl, occasionally seeming to get trampled in the process. ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz kept a tighter rein on Biden and Ryan on Thursday, with focused questions and incisive follow-ups that served to cast their views in sharper relief, a real plus for voters.
Tuesday at Hofstra, CNN's Candy Crowley will moderate a town hall discussion. The questions, on both foreign and domestic policy, will come from audience members. Like Lehrer, Crowley should let the candidates mix it up. But like Raddatz, she should push judiciously but firmly for clear, specific responses.
The opportunity to interact with everyday folks will give both candidates an opportunity to seem relatable and show off their less formal, more folksy sides. Whether they can capitalize on that will play some part in how they are judged.
Right now, pre-Hofstra, we are left with the same questions we have had about these candidates for months. Obama's inability over the past four years to effectively advocate has affected his ability to lead. He often seems professorial and disconnected from the pain and fears of voters. The economy has been slow to improve and he has been unable to persuade the nation and bickering politicians to pull together in this time of crisis and overcome our differences. His performance in Denver, halting and technocratic, reinforced that failing.
Romney, while he conveyed a much better impression on style and passion, left debate observers as confused about his plans as they were before the event. It is impossible to know what he plans to do with taxes, how he plans to address the deficit, his views on entitlements and health care, or his blueprint for creating the 12 million new jobs he has repeatedly promised.
As the candidates and media descend on Long Island, the questions facing the nation have not changed. What the viewing public needs are answers. These are the questions we'd like to see addressed:
How will we deal with the quaking Middle East, supporting our allies and ideals without dragging the nation into more deadly, muddling conflicts? How will we respond to the economic rumblings in Europe and China? What is the proper international role for a nation with as much power as ours and so little certainty about how to deploy it?
At home, how can we get the deficit under control without imposing spending cuts and tax increases that could hurl the economy back into recession? How can we revitalize the housing market without again encouraging destructive loan practices and price bubbles? How will we create jobs, particularly in manufacturing? What can be done to assure that every American child gets the education needed to succeed? How will we protect the environment without regulating business to death? How will we provide health care as prices spiral out of control and the population ages? How will we address the stagnating income of the shrinking middle class, and relieve the crushing poverty of the growing lower class?
Long Island is the perfect setting to address these issues. It is diverse and international, yet unwaveringly American. It is rural and urban and suburban. It is rich and poor and middle class. And its people struggle with high taxes, high prices, unemployment, fading infrastructure, environmental concerns and fears for the future.
So bring on the questions, and more important, the answers. Bring on the leadership and the solutions. Bring on a great debate.