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McCain Faces Tough Task in Final Presidential Debate

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By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008; 1:50 PM

Heading into his third and final presidential debate against Barack Obama tonight, John McCain faces an uphill struggle against a "brilliant speaker" who has opened up a substantial lead in opinion polls nationwide and in key battleground states, the McCain campaign said today.

Sens. Obama (D-Ill.) and McCain (R-Ariz.) face off at 9 p.m. Eastern time at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., for a 90-minute debate dedicated to the economy and domestic policy and moderated by former CBS news anchor Bob Schieffer. Tonight's topics, announced in September by the Commission on Presidential Debates, are central to Obama's campaign, and recent polls have shown him gaining ground as Americans try to decide who is better prepared to deal with the nation's financial crisis and economic downturn.

As the candidates prepared for the debate, their running mates and spouses fanned out to battleground states that are up for grabs in the Nov. 4 election and could help determine its outcome.

McCain's vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, embarked on a series of rallies in New Hampshire. Her husband Todd Palin, an oilfield worker in Alaska, was separately meeting factory workers and diner patrons in two New Hampshire towns.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Obama's running mate, was touring Ohio today, holding rallies in three towns starting with Athens, home of Ohio University. Michelle Obama, the candidate's wife, traveled to Fort Wayne, Ind., for a rally today before her scheduled appearance at Hofstra University to attend tonight's debate.

Obama prepared yesterday for the debate at a secluded resort on Lake Erie in Ohio, while McCain spent time rehearsing at a stage complex in New York's theater district, news agencies reported.

In an interview on NBC's "Today" show this morning, McCain spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace said the senator from Arizona would focus tonight on what she called "the truth about Barack Obama's plan for raising taxes" and his pursuit of other "liberal" policies. "Barack Obama is measuring the drapes," she declared. "He and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are planning a liberal Democratic takeover of our economy." She referred to the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, interviewed on the same program, said the senator from Illinois tonight would "lay out a plan to get this economy moving again, to make health care more affordable, to cut taxes for middle-class families."

Pointing to a new New York Times/CBS poll that shows Obama holding a 14-point lead over McCain, Gibbs said the Republicans are "not losing a spin war" but are at odds with the majority of Americans, especially on negative campaigning. "Six in 10 people think John McCain is far more interested . . . in attacking Barack Obama than saying what he'd do as president of the United States," Gibbs said, citing the poll. He suggested that attacking Obama on his ties to 1960s-era radical William Ayers, a subject McCain has indicated he would raise, would reinforce those perceptions.

"What Barack Obama is going to do is lay out a forceful case for change because, quite frankly, we can't afford four more years of the same George Bush-John McCain policies," Gibbs said.

Wallace acknowledged that "the polls certainly have John McCain well behind, and we view ourselves as probably six points behind." But she said McCain has overcome deficits before, including a "far more bleak" situation during the Republican primaries.

"And we're going to seek to make up ground by showing that John McCain is the only one who has fought for the American people," she said. "He's the only one who will actually bring about the change in Washington. No one is running on anything other than change. Everyone is running on changing the direction of this country. John McCain is the only one who's actually done it."

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