(CBS/ AP) The crucial presidential debate between Republican John McCain and Barack Obama got under way Tuesday night at Belmont University.
The 90-minute encounter is being moderated by NBC's Tom Brokaw and will include questions on both foreign and domestic policy raised by the audience and voters participating through the Internet.
But the candidates are likely to go after each other on character issues, which McCain's team has forcefully re-injected into the campaign since the weekend.
The town hall is McCain's signature - one way he built his "Straight Talk" reputation by interacting with voters in the 2000 campaign and then pulled himself out of single digits to win this year's Republican primary. Since he won the nomination, however, the audiences for these events have needed to get tickets and have not been the come-one-come-all events of the primaries.
Obama has used the town hall format sporadically throughout his campaign, but not recently.
Instead the Democratic nominee has carefully protected his lead with a highly scripted campaign style ever since an off-the-cuff line blew up into a false controversy four weeks ago. Ever since, he's been exclusively sticking to rallies and speeches with a TelePrompTer almost always feeding him prepared text to read.
“John McCain faces a real challenge tonight,” said CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs. “If he takes the gloves off the way he and his campaign have signaled, he risks his reputation and could come across as somewhat desperate, as the Obama camp claims."
"He needs something to turn the course of the campaign and raising questions of trust might be the only way," Ververs added. "But with more signs of a very shaky economy evident today, voters will be looking for the candidate who addresses the problems, not a slugfest over character.”
Some Republicans feel McCain needs to engage voters on the issues, not character, to overtake Obama. Scott Reed, who managed Republican Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, said of the economic crisis: "McCain is suffering because Americans typically punish the party in power."
McCain's best bet, Reed said, is to show voters "who has the best solutions."
Obama adviser David Axelrod told reporters the Democratic nominee wants to focus on economic issues but "we're prepared for a very aggressive debate" if it becomes more personal. "We're running for president of the United States," he said. "It's a rough, tough pursuit."
The debate was being held at a time most Americans have a dismal view of the country's direction.
A Gallup Poll released Tuesday showed just 9 percent say they're satisfied with the way things are going, the lowest ever recorded in the 29 years Gallup has asked the question. Asked to name the country's major problem, 69 percent said the economy. Next closest: 11 percent cited the Iraq war.
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