Though the candidates sparred on a wide range of issues including foreign policy and health care, the first question handled by the candidates echoed the seminal question in the minds of American voters, from Joe Six-Packs to soccer moms: What does the economic crisis mean to average Americans?
Both made a point to portray themselves as reformers who believe strong leadership and government involvement is necessary to fix the economy.
"Americans are angry, they're upset and they're a little fearful," McCain said of the economy.
Calling the global downturn the "worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," Obama blamed President Bush and, by association, McCain, whom he said supported the failed policies of the Bush administration.
"I believe this is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by Bush and supported by McCain," he said.
In the days leading up to the debate, McCain said he wanted to shift the national dialogue away from the ongoing economic crisis and onto Obama's character.
The two were expected to hammer out clear differences, and the second meeting between the candidates was seen as a chance for McCain to reverse a recent slide in the polls, leaving him trailing in key battleground states.
Both men took the opportunity to make small digs at each other, but the debate contained none of the personal, ad hominem negative attacks that pundits had predicted.
McCain questioned Obama's tax policy, saying, "Nailing down Sen. Obama's various tax proposals is like . The last president to raise taxes during tough economic times was Hoover."
To which Obama parried: "I think the straight talk express lost a wheel on that one."
The town hall style debatewas moderated by Tom Brokaw of NBC News, who asked just a handful of the hundreds of thousands of questions submitted over the Internet.
Another dozen or so questions were asked by a group of 80 undecided voters from the Nashville area selected by the Gallup Poll.
McCain favors the town hall format and had previously challenged Obama to other town hall debates, a fact that led to the evening's first zinger.
"It's good to be with you at a town hall meeting," McCain said to Obama, who had refused McCain's invitation to meet for weekly town hall debates.
The town hall style never fully took off, with the candidates rarely engaging the audience or each other, and Brokaw chiding the candidates for not sticking to the time limits.
Asked whom each would nominate as Treasury secretary in their respective administrations, McCain suggested former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, while Obama suggested Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett.
Both took the opportunity to blame each other for playing a role in causing the economic crisis.
McCain accused Obama of receiving donations form individuals at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants whose failures signaled the oncoming crisis. "There were some of us who stood up against this," he said. "There were others who took a hike."
Obama has received $126,349 ($120,349 from employees and $6,000 from Political Action Committees, or PACs) since he joined the Senate in 2005, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
His total is the second-largest of any member of Congress, right behind Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., at $165,400.