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."
At least 15 national polls conducted in recent days show Obama leading McCain by an average of 8 percentage points. The New York Times/CBS poll gave Obama the largest lead. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Oct. 8-11 showed Obama with a 10-point lead.
On the issue of which candidate voters trust more to handle the economy, Obama came out ahead by 53 percent to 37 percent in the Post-ABC poll. In response to questions on who better understands the nation's economic problems and would do more to bring needed change to Washington, voters favored Obama by more than two to one.
In another joint interview on CBS's "Early Show," Wallace said she wished there were more three weeks remaining until Election Day. "We need a little more time," she said. Asked what McCain needs to do tonight to "make a difference" with Nov. 4 approaching, Wallace apparently sought to lower expectations somewhat.
"No one can outtalk Barack Obama," Wallace said. "I mean, he's brilliant. He is [an] absolutely brilliant speaker. . . . He's the most gifted political communicator of our generation."
But Americans are "looking for is a fighter," she said. "We're in . . . more than just an economic downturn. We are in a major national crisis. And in an hour of crisis, John McCain is someone who has actually . . . reached across the aisle, worked with Democrats to take on big, entrenched special interests, and has a record of reform that is the best indicator yet that he's the only one can shake up the broken institutions in Washington and Wall Street."
Gibbs said it was unclear which John McCain would show up at tonight's debate. "Do we get the John McCain who we've seen that's erratic in this economic crisis, that's gone from one bad solution to the next?" he asked. "Or do we see the John McCain that is more interested in personal attacks than he is in talking about how we get this economy moving again and creating jobs for working people."
Unlike the two previous presidential debates, tonight's encounter will feature the two candidates seated at a table with the moderator. In the first debate on Sept. 26 in Oxford, Miss., the two men stood at lecterns on a stage. In the second, a town hall-style event in Nashville, they walked around and interacted with the audience.