From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
*** All eyes on McCain: What has to be the most jam-packed season of debates in modern American political history -- we've witnessed some 40 of them, according to our count -- finally comes to an end tonight when McCain and Obama square off here in final last debate. This final showdown comes as two new national polls show McCain trailing Obama by a significant margin (14 points according to New York Times/CBS and nine points per LA Times/Bloomberg), and after McCain declared that he would whip Obama's "you-know-what" and that he would possibly bring up Ayers at tonight's debate. (Of course, the moderator might be the one to bring up Ayers). Indeed, all eyes tonight will be on the Arizona Republican to see how he catches up. And that's a striking turn of events, given how we always thought this election would be about Obama. However, maybe it was about Obama -- until the point he made himself qualified in the public's eye. Then it became about Bush again, but we digress…
*** Trying to disqualify Obama: Whether it's the media, Republicans, or voters, everyone watching is aware the onus is on McCain to make the case that Obama isn't ready. From the day he announced, voters gave McCain the benefit of the doubt on presidential readiness. And yet McCain has spent much of the fall campaign trying to convince voters he can handle this job. But voters are already convinced. The problem for McCain is that through three debates -- two presidentials and one vice-presidential -- a majority of voters are also convinced Obama can do the job. This means, McCain has to somehow accomplish the following: disqualify Obama without going negative. To do this, he needs help from Obama, but judging from the Democrat's previous performances, it's hard to predict that McCain will get help from his opponent.
*** How does he do it? So short of that, what does he do? Does he go totally soft and do what he can rebuild the McCain brand? Does he try and sell yet another new idea, like a radical appointment idea or a one-term pledge? It could look desperate. The simplest solution of course is not to try and do everything tonight. If tonight is simply about making some swing/indie voters like McCain again, it will be a start. The biggest mistake he could make is to assume this is it. Then again, what if this IS it? What if this is the last time 70 million Americans tune into the presidential race before Election Day with an open mind?
*** Obama's goals: The obvious one is to not make a mistake. If he can get through this debate without a YouTube moment, then he will have accomplished the second most important feat of the fall campaign: win the debate season. As Dean Smith might advise, it's four corners time. And yet, Obama can't come across as too presumptuous or too cocky. The thing the campaign is probably praying for, actually, is for McCain to go after his character; defending one self from an obvious attack is usually the easiest thing to do at a debate. It's getting hit with the surprise attack that's hard to defend. But at this point, are there really any more surprises?
*** The skinny: Tonight's 90-minute debate from Hofstra University, moderated by CBS's Bob Schieffer, begins at 9:00 pm ET. The topic is domestic policy, and like at the first debate, there will be two-minute responses to questions with an additional five minutes of discussion. But unlike past debates, McCain and Obama will be seated at a table. Just how much harder is it to go negative on someone you are sitting next to? Just ask Nicolle Wallace and Robert Gibbs, who shared a couch this morning on TODAY. They weren't yelling at each other.
*** A polarized electorate: NBC/WSJ pollster Peter Hart (D) passes along this finding from a recent poll he conducted: 37% of McCain voters say they detest Obama and would have a hard time accepting him as president, while a similar number of Obama voters (36%) say the same thing of McCain.
*** McCain's media strategy: Much is going to be made of the gargantuan financial advantage Obama's had this fall. And it's played out in his TV buying decisions -- he's in every possible market that even touches a swing state (including Chicago and Louisville, which bleed into Indiana). So how is McCain countering? Take a look at the ad buys McCain makes outside the big cities. In those markets (like a Green Bay or a Youngstown), McCain and Obama are about even; it's in the major markets where Obama dominates. In many of these cities, McCain has decided to skip buying altogether (including Miami and Washington, DC). But realize that the Obama strategy and the McCain strategy to 270 are different. Obama needs big wins and turnouts in the major cities and inner-suburbs to win. McCain needs to win overwhelmingly in the small cities/towns and rural parts of the battleground states. Still, it must be demoralizing for Republicans in the inner-suburbs to see so much Obama and so little McCain. And by the way, we haven't even discussed radio where Obama is just drowning out McCain by even greater margins than on TV.
*** Obama keeps innovating: If Obama wins, there will be a lot of folks who will take credit -- from the folks who claim they did the early vote, the voter registration program, or (as we learned yesterday), the video game ad campaign. Yes, that's right, Obama is now advertising in video games. Gaming ads are not new, but new to politics. The Army has actually very effectively used video games for recruiting. But considering the Obama demographic of new voters, gaming is an interesting tack, the only thing he's got to worry about is making sure his ads show up in games that aren't, um, too mature.
*** Hammering the message home: McCain might be trailing right now and Republicans might be poised to lose more House and Senate seats. But you can say this about the GOP: It really knows how to drive a message -- whether it's Bill Ayers or ACORN -- and get the MSM to pick up it. ACORN has got name I.D., that's a start for them.
*** On the trail: Biden campaigns in Ohio, stopping Athens, Granville, and Newark. Palin spends her day in New Hampshire, stumping in Dover, Laconia, and Salem. And Michelle Obama goes to Fort Wayne, IN before heading to the debate.
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 20 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 97 days
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