The AP's Pickler tees up tonight's debate by focusing on the expectations game. "Here's how it's played: Before a debate, rival campaigns build up the skills of their opponents while downgrading their own candidate's verbal abilities. That way, any bright moments make a performance seem like a home run… 'I've just got to make sure I don't trip walking on the stage," joked Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, who complained that the candidates get no opening or closing statements and that responses to questions are limited to 60 seconds.'"
More: "Illinois Sen. Barack Obama cracked, 'It takes me 60 seconds to clear my throat.'"
But the Chicago Sun-Times isn't buying the lower expectations for Obama. "Obama joked that he was going to be 'winging it,' suggesting he was barely preparing for the first presidential debate of the 2008 primary season… But he has been wedging practice and study sessions into his schedule for days to prepare for tonight's debate… He has prepped at the Washington office of Bob Bauer, his campaign lawyer and held at least one other session. He expanded his tight inner circle for the debate to include issue experts plus kitchen-cabinet member Anita Dunn, a Democratic consultant, and Cook County Board member Forrest Claypool, a close friend of chief Obama strategist David Axelrod."
The State has experts saying that tonight's debate format will make it difficult for anyone outside the top-tier of candidates to break through. "There will be eight candidates on the stage at 7 p.m. facing 90 minutes of questions from NBC News anchor Brian Williams. There are no opening and closing statements. At most, there will be time for about 12 questions, if each candidate is given one minute to respond to each question."
The State also reports that national and state Republicans "will spend the day telling South Carolinians and the country at large why the party believes 'Democrats are wrong.' According to a copy of a Republican National Committee plan to be released today, the GOP will launch a major media offensive to counter the Democratic message coming from Orangeburg. The plan … includes talking points and research on why the top Democratic candidates are 'wrong on the economy for South Carolina,' as well as wrong on the war in Iraq and wrong on South Carolina values."
A possible question tonight? The SEIU -- perhaps one of the few unions that could be influential in the Democratic primary -- called on all the Democratic candidates to release a health-care plan by Aug. 1. From its release: "SEIU will evaluate the plans based on how many people they cover, the cost, and whether they meet basic principles such as ensuring a choice of doctors and providing for preventive care." There was no "or else" mentioned in the release, but we have to assume -- no health care plan, no Andy Stern endorsement consideration.