For one thing, most voters have not been able to make it out to see the candidates stump. Lacking this first hand experience, any chance to see the two duel–be it using talking points or not–is worthwhile. I would wager that the few people who would scour speeches to learn about the candidates respective positions are in the minority and are political die-hards anyway. Voters want things presented to them, and this is one of the few times when they have a nice side-by-side comparison.
Secondly, the nervousness in the U.S.–and around the world, for that matter–is palpable. The first debates have focuses on foreign policy, as well as economic policy; but the situation is so fluid, and things are very different now. Both camps have presented brand-spanking new economic plans in the past few days, and this is the perfect time to explain them to the voters. The next president will be the one managing the fallout from this financial crisis, and giving these candidates a chance to enumerate their policies could serve to calm things–in a way that the lame duck George W. Bush has not been able to. People want to know what McCain and Obama what and how they will fix things–and they want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, if you will.
Of course. The candidates' economic policies are in flux and Americans want to know how their future president plans to get the country out of the mire. But they're not going to hear it tonight. This economic crisis is so massive and complex that even the most educated voters have a hard time understanding the factors involved. I would wager that Obama's surge in the polls since the market collapsed has a lot less to do with the appeal of his economic plans than the fact that there isn't an (R) next to his name.
How could Obama or McCain possibly explain how they plan to "fix" the economy within the strict time limits and artificial structure of these debates, except in the most superficial terms? Tonight we're going to hear a lot of soothing noises from both candidates about how they plan to create jobs, regulate the banking sector, and keep taxes on the middle class low. Then we're going to hear some out-of-context quotes and votes that explain why the other candidate helped get the country into this mess. Which candidate a voter believes will mostly be determined either by who they supported coming in or who gives a slicker presentation.
As Dan Rather put it, "These aren’t debates...They are a 'something,' but they aren’t debates."