Candidates Prepare for Tuesday's Town Hall Debate
Format Is Seen As McCain Forte

By Michael Abramowitz and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 6, 2008

SEDONA, Ariz., Oct. 5 -- In one of the most beautiful spots on the globe, Sen. John McCain spent much of Saturday holed up in a dark hotel conference room, engaged in intense debate preparation. At the end of it, the GOP nominee told his aides that was crazy, and so Sunday's first round of debate prep was held outside, near the creek by his house in the scenic Arizona desert.

Other than that last-minute audible, McCain appears to be engaged in especially serious preparations for Tuesday's debate, one of his last opportunities to change the trajectory of a race that may be slipping out of his control. He is certainly doing more formal preparation than he did before last month's debate in Mississippi.

Since leaving Washington on Thursday, McCain has kept a light schedule, his only public appearances being two town-hall-style events in Colorado -- that will be the format of Tuesday's debate in Nashville. On Saturday and Sunday, he held three formal practice sessions, with former Ohio congressman Rob Portman standing in for Obama.

"McCain has done so many of these over the years that it's probably going to be the best kind of forum he is going to be in," said his former campaign manager Terry Nelson. "It's a great opportunity for him and the campaign."

Obama aides were trying to raise expectations for McCain even higher.

"We are expecting to see John McCain at the top of his game," said Jen Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman. "Town halls have been the signature event of both of his presidential campaigns -- he likes them, feels he does well at them and credits them for his political comeback in the summer of 2007."

Obama is preparing in Asheville, N.C., in a state where he is hoping to sway voters who typically vote Republican in presidential elections. He was joined at a resort hotel by several top aides, including strategists David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, campaign manager David Plouffe, and Greg Craig, the Washington lawyer and Clinton administration official who has portrayed McCain in practice debates.

In the words of one campaign aide, Obama will seek Tuesday to continue his efforts to present himself as a "very pragmatic, non-ideological and very even-keeled" politician, one who can be trusted to take over the country at a time of uncertainty abroad and at home.

At the same time, the Obama campaign is trying to raise questions about McCain's temperament, launching a television ad today that labels the Arizona senator as "erratic in a crisis." [Ad Watch, A5.]

Speaking Sunday to thousands gathered on the football field of Asheville High School, Obama predicted that McCain would seek to "distract you with smears" in the final month of the campaign.

"Senator McCain's campaign has announced that they plan to 'turn the page' on the discussion about our economy and spend the final weeks of this campaign launching Swift-boat-style attacks on me," Obama said. "Senator McCain and his operatives are gambling that he can distract you. . . . I want you to know that I'm going to keep on talking about issues that matter."

He was alluding to the suggestion by McCain aides that they intend to ratchet up attacks on Obama to try to halt his recent momentum, especially questioning his judgment for his associations with 1960s radical William Ayers and convicted Chicago developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko.

An open question is how aggressively McCain will take the fight to Obama on Tuesday night. One senior McCain adviser said Sunday that he expects both candidates to draw contrasts with each other on the economy, but he seemed to suggest McCain would stay away from personal attacks.

This official said McCain is looking forward to the debate because he likes the freewheeling town hall format, and he expects it to focus on the candidates' economic plans.

"The key for McCain, if he is to close the race, is to argue that the change Obama wants is change Americans don't want," said Sara M. Taylor, former White House political director for President Bush. "Whether it's higher taxes or increased government involvement in health care, Senators McCain and Obama couldn't be more different."

Gibbs, the Obama strategist, said that any personal or character-based attacks from McCain would be complicated by the style of the debate, in which the candidates will take questions posed by audience members and, through moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC, from people online.

"I think they've announced they want people to forget about the economy and talk about Barack Obama," Gibbs said. "I think that's very dangerous and very hard in a debate where you are taking questions from real people."

Bacon reported from Asheville.

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