Two warmup acts upstaged the main events at the recent Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

At the RNC, Clint Eastwood's strange stunt -- an off-kilter, off-color "conversation" with an empty chair -- overshadowed Mitt Romney's acceptance speech.

At the DNC, Bill Clinton's folksy, wonky appeal to re-elect Barack Obama was a more effective presidential presentation than the one given by Obama himself.

There were some significant similarities between the two warmup speakers. Both Clint and Clinton were extensively extemporaneous. Both nearly doubled their allotted time. And both created the most memorable moments of what are increasingly scripted, constricted conventions.

But ratings data, and the resiliency of Clinton's more relevant message to anxious Americans, suggest that Obama benefited more than Romney.

Indeed, a new Pew poll reports that of those who watched at least a little GOP convention coverage, more said Eastwood was the highlight than Romney (20 percent vs. 17 percent). More striking was the steep decline in interest: Only 37 percent of those polled said they watched all or some of the Republican convention, compared with 56 percent in 2008.

Nielsen ratings data indicate that about 30.3 million viewers watched Romney, compared with the nearly 39 million who watched John McCain's refrain four years earlier. And Gallup found no giddyap either: The conventional "convention bounce" was actually a decline of 1 percentage point for Romney.

Clinton, conversely, reprised his "Comeback Kid" persona, at least with Nielsen. (Neither Pew nor Gallup has yet issued a commensurate convention analysis for the Democrats.) About 25.1 million watched the second night of the DNC, just below the 25.9 million who watched night two of the four-day 2008 Denver convention.

And the delegates in funny hats even beat helmeted football players. The annual NFL Kick-Off Game, which featured the Super Bowl champion New York Giants vs. the perennially popular Dallas Cowboys, drew 23.9 million viewers.

But while the images of delegates leaping from their seats to clap for Clinton may matter more than the image of the empty chair, the top-of-the-tickets should be more concerned about empty couches in front of TV sets.

For the RNC, Romney's ratings slide was actually less than the dizzying drop for his running mate, Paul Ryan. Back in 2008, Sarah Palin's crowd-rousing speech in St. Paul drew more than 37 million viewers. Only about 22 million bothered to tune in to watch Ryan accept the vice presidential nomination.

And while Obama's appeal for four more years drew 35.7 million viewers on Thursday night -- 5.4 million more than Romney -- it was still short of the 38.3 million who watched him four years ago in Denver.

That speech famously featured a backdrop of Greek columns. The stagecraft wisely hid any Hellenic references this year, since what most voters associate with Greece is Athens as ground zero of the euro-zone debt crisis.

Both Obama and Romney made ephemeral references to specific plans to address America's more fixable fiscal mess. But neither really delved deep into detail about the austere era awaiting America -- regardless of who wins. This was a lost opportunity, for the next president and the citizens he hopes to lead.

For the vast majority of voters, these are the toughest times they've seen. Most are ready for hard truths. But what they often got were easy biographical sketches of the candidates' lives (and wives) that were nice, but didn't seem to match the monumental challenges the nation faces.

Beyond pocketbook issues, divisive social issues have had unexpected resiliency. And while international issues were foreign to many speakers at both conventions (although the Democrats seemed to amp up Afghanistan after Romney failed to mention the war in his speech), issues like Iran's nuclear potential may potentially become this election's "October surprise."

On each economic, social and foreign policy issue, the stakes are stark. More than most votes, the two sides are far apart, the race is close, and who wins matters.

But at least compared to the election's importance, there seems to be inverse interest in the two men vying for voters, at least as measured by TV viewership.

This may be partly due to media reasons: Technological transformations have made it possible, even preferable for some, to follow the news narrative through social media and other new media methods.

Or maybe it's because so many have already made up their minds during an election year that seemed to begin on Election Night 2008.

It might also be because so many are turned off by the partisan paralysis that suspends the Beltway. Solving this key issue is necessary to solve all the others. Unfortunately, both candidates are heeding the need to appeal to their bases, and seem transfixed on Election Day, Nov. 6.

What awaits the winner on Nov. 7 isn't an empty chair, but a hot seat, and both Obama and Romney may rue not using their conventions more constructively.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.