Stakes of Presidential Nominees' First Debate May Now Be Higher

By Anne E. Kornblut and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 26, 2008

When Sen. John McCain was asked this summer how he had gone from political has-been to winning his party's presidential nomination, he mentioned, of all things, a debate.

"We had a debate in New Hampshire," McCain told a questioner at the Aspen Institute. "And very frankly, I didn't do well in all the debates. But I did well in that debate."

With his ill-timed grins and his disdain for sticking to a script, McCain and his advisers like to portray him as being at a significant disadvantage to Sen. Barack Obama, whose oratorical skills helped vault him to the Democratic nomination.

The tumultuous events of the past few days suggest that McCain's ambivalence toward debating persists. The fate of the first presidential debate, scheduled for tonight in Oxford, Miss., has been up in the air since Wednesday, when McCain announced he would suspend his campaign to attend to the financial crisis -- and sought to delay the face-off.

Yet the debate, whenever it does occur, will also offer McCain a chance to demonstrate significant strengths, including a dry, quick wit and 26 years of experience in answering questions off the cuff, both in Congress and on the campaign trail. And despite their many differences, McCain and Obama will share three debate goals: surpassing expectations, neutralizing their perceived weaknesses and demonstrating an ability to at least appear presidential.

"It's the same every time you do one of these things: You've got to come across as knowledgeable, in command, on top of the issues," said William M. Daley, the former commerce secretary and a close Obama ally.

But now, Daley said: "The American people will look at Obama and McCain very differently than they looked at either of them in the primaries. Now one of them is going to be the president of the United States for the next four years, not the next four weeks. And they'll be asking, 'Can this person lead us for the next four years, and in a different direction?' "

After days of uncertainty, the stakes of the debate may now be higher and could well draw a larger audience -- into the tens of millions, aides on both sides said. The campaigns have agreed that the first debate's topic will be foreign policy and national security; it is unclear what allowances could be made for the candidates to address the economy, which polls consistently show to be the top issue in the country now.

Obama, who participated in nearly two dozen debates with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries, has practiced steadily on the road, with a sharp (and white-haired) lawyer, Greg Craig, sometimes standing in as McCain. Some of his top supporters have urged Obama to do whatever he can to avoid appearing condescending, worried that he could repeat the mistake of once telling Clinton she was "likable enough."

Obama advisers have been furiously working to lower expectations for weeks. "John McCain has boasted throughout the campaign about his decades of Washington foreign policy experience and what an advantage that will be for him," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said. "This debate offers him major home-court advantage, and anything short of a game-changing event will be a key missed opportunity for him."

McCain, speaking to reporters on Tuesday before seeking a delay, offered a similar assessment of his rival.

"Look, have no doubt about it, the capabilities of Senator Obama to debate -- I mean, he's very, very good," McCain said. "He was able to beat Senator Hillary Clinton, who as we all know is very accomplished, very accomplished. And he was able to, I think, with his eloquence inspire a great number of Americans. So, these are going to be tough debates. But I believe that on the substance, on the substance, I can convince the American people that I can reform government, restore prosperity and keep the peace."

Speaking more candidly behind the scenes, aides to both candidates said they have specific goals for the first meeting, and acknowledged very real potential pitfalls.

For McCain, a central challenge is Obama's repeated declaration that electing the senator from Arizona would be a third term for President Bush. One way for McCain to combat that, advisers said, would be to point out the many ways McCain has disagreed with both the president and his party over the years.

Historically, McCain has demonstrated the kind of debate skills that come from years in Congress and numerous political campaigns. Aides said he believes he does best answering questions, rather than reciting policy. He does not shy away from the political jab.

In the New Hampshire debate that McCain believes turned his campaign around, he dryly welcomed former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) to the race and noted his absence at the forum.

"Maybe we're up past his bedtime," McCain said, foreshadowing what became the standard line that Thompson was not up to the rigors of the campaign trail.

McCain also made it clear he thought that he knew more than his competitors when the subject was foreign policy. That night in Dover, he set his sights on then-front-runner Mitt Romney and dressed him down like a displeased professor when Romney said the "surge" in Iraq was "apparently" working.

"It is working," McCain told the former Massachusetts governor. "Not 'apparently'; it's working."

If McCain fondly remembers New Hampshire, his advisers think he did better a month later in Florida. It was there that he came up with perhaps his sharpest jibe of the campaign, and found a way to combine pork-barrel spending, culture wars, criticism of Clinton and a reminder of his days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Ignoring the question posed, McCain said: "In case you missed it, a few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock Concert Museum. Now my friends, I wasn't there."

He let the audience remember why. "I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time."

While McCain advisers have refused to discuss his debate preparation, senior aides have been traveling with him for more than a week, prepping him when the campaign has down time, and there was extra work over the weekend. One aide said privately that this debate will be different for McCain, because he never reached a point during the primaries, as Obama did, when the debates regularly became two-candidate affairs.

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