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First thoughts: Let's debate (or not)

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
OXFORD, Miss. -- Is it really debate day? Only John McCain knows, but last night he and his campaign sounded like they were going to find their way here before 9:00 pm ET. So assuming McCain does show up, what should we expect? Will there be a record-breaking audience that watches tonight? We have our doubts; after all, it's high school football night, especially for states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. As for the candidates, who's the favorite? The format sets up nicely for Obama (no real time limits and they'll be at podiums). And the subject matter (foreign policy) sets up well for McCain. Neither had stellar debate performances in the primaries, and they split their two sit-down forums, with McCain winning the more significant one: Saddleback. The trick for both candidates isn't performing well. Instead, it's avoiding some of their own bad habits. Obama can't let himself slip into condescending or smart-aleck mode and appear too passive (see: today's New York Times), and McCain can't have those awkward smiles slip in during a serious point (see: "hell, gates of"). Since McCain is behind ever so slightly right now, the burden is on him to start of well tonight. But given the chaotic events of the week, he does have a built-in excuse if he doesn't perform up to par -- he wasn't focused on the debate as much as Obama. Then again, is that a good excuse, especially when it was his decision to direct his focus elsewhere? Here's one reason why so many folks are convinced McCain will show up: Does he really want to wake up on Monday morning having been a party both to Washington's inability to get a deal done and be perceived as he ducked a debate?

*** Losing the spin war: Speaking of, McCain's losing the spin war on the bailout plan for a couple of reasons. One, he's not just up against a fairly united Democratic Congress and Obama -- but also the White House and Hank Paulson. And Senate Republicans appear to be on board as well; GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander told CNBC's John Harwood that as many of 40 out of the 49 Republicans in that chamber could support the bailout. It's only McCain and the House Republicans who are now opposing this. Last night, the McCain campaign sent a memo to reporters, saying: "At this moment, the plan that has been put forth by the Administration does not enjoy the confidence of the American people as it will not protect that taxpayers and will sacrifice Main Street in favor of Wall Street. The bottom line is that as of tonight, there are not enough Republican or Democrat votes for the current plan. However, we are still optimistic that a bipartisan solution will be found." But by injecting himself into the bailout negotiations, McCain has forced himself into this either-or situation: convince House Republicans to back the plan, or come up with a plan of his own. If he can't do either, then why did he come to Washington? And what happens if the market collapses today? Does McCain own a market collapse?

*** Whose bright idea was this? NBC's John Yang makes this other point: "Besides being a big stakeholder in Washington Mutual, the person I'd least like to be this morning is the Bush aide who told the president it was a good idea to adopt McCain's idea to call the congressional leaders and the two presidential nominees to the White House. (I can still hear him roaring to an aide during the 2000 primary campaign: "Whose brilliant idea was this?!?") By all accounts, what White House officials intended to be a meeting to bring everyone together, get them on the same page, propel them to a final deal -- and, McCain likely hoped, make the Republican nominee look like the hero -- turned into a politically charged session of finger-pointing and bitter recriminations." Also, it was just announced that Bush will make a statement on the financial crisis at 9:35 am ET.

*** Palin's bad week gets worse: What has happened to the Sarah Palin who stepped onto the national stage with her well-received convention speech three weeks ago? That person is now a shell of her former self. Had it not been for McCain's debate gambit, Palin's near-disastrous two-part interview with Katie Couric would be dominating the political discussion right now. On Wednesday, she was unable to cite an example of McCain being in favor of more oversight outside the one Couric provided ("I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you," she finally replied). And yesterday, she provided an interview clip heard 'round the world. Was this a Roger Mudd moment? The news has only gotten worse for Palin, with the Washington Post reporting that she accepted $25,000 in gifts as Alaska governor, which brings into question her credentials as a reformer. Is there now a new meaning to the "Palin Effect"? At this point, it really depends on how she performs at next week's debate. If there is an upside to the Palin performance this week, she has moved her debate expectations to an all-time low.

*** The debate skinny: The first presidential debate between McCain and Obama -- if it takes place -- is scheduled to begin at 9:00 pm ET here at the University of Mississippi. The topic of the 90-minute debate is foreign policy, although moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS has suggested that he will ask questions about the economy and the Wall Street crisis. There will be two-minute answers, followed by a five-minute discussion for each question.

*** Talk about shaking things up: Oregon State beating USC last night is the equivalent of Obama carrying Mississippi or McCain carrying Massachusetts. It's not impossible, and we can explain it away if it somehow happened. But it sure is improbable.
*** On the trail: Biden (along with his wife) attends a firehouse fish fry in Cudahy, WI. Palin hits a debate-watching party in Philadelphia, PA.
Countdown to the vice presidential debate: 6 days
Countdown to the second presidential debate 11 days
Countdown to the third presidential debate: 19 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 39 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 116 days
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