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McCain-Obama debate: a game-changing face-off?

Some presidential debates tip elections. This could be one of them.

By Staff writer / September 26, 2008

In preparation for Friday's debate, University of Mississippi students stood in for presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain during rehearsals Thursday on campus in Oxford, Miss.

Chip Somodevilla/AP


Oxford, Miss.

The debate is on, despite the continuing negotiations on Capitol Hill over the nation’s financial crisis.

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John McCain has finally agreed to join Barack Obama on stage here in Oxford, Miss. And the encounter has all of the earmarks of a major game-changer.

That’s not just because of the nation’s economic crisis and the drama of the last day and a half over whether McCain would attend. Tonight’s encounter has the potential to rival the televised contest of 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon that tipped the electorate in favor of the Democrat, debate experts say, or the 1980 face-off between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that helped shift the momentum in the GOP’s favor.

The race between Barack Obama and John McCain remains tight. Some voters in both parties are still looking to be reassured about their own candidate’s leadership qualities and temperament. Alliances within each party’s base are also in flux: some rural voters, traditional Republicans, are leaning toward Obama. Some white women voters, traditionally more Democratic, are favoring McCain.

Add into the mix a column of “undecided voters” as large as 8 percent, and this series of debates kicking off with foreign policy here are expected to go down in the halls of debate fame.

"All of the factors are in play this year that would suggest that these truly are going to be significant debates,” says Mitchell McKinney, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri.Top on that list of factors is familiarity. Both Obama and McCain have work to do in shoring up support even within their own parties. As well known as McCain is, he’s never been the darling of the Republican base. While his choice of Sarah Palin has helped shore up much of that support, there are still Republicans who wonder if he has the temperament to lead. Obama, on the other hand, still has to convince some Hillary Clinton supporters that he can represent them as well. And he needs to address concerns about his experience.

“People will be looking at: ‘Is Obama experienced enough, can he really command?’ With McCain it’s: ‘Can he really relate to us on economic issues, is he more than just a one-hit- wonder on this country-first thing?’ ” says Professor McKinney. “Voters are looking to become more comfortable with the candidates and for a fleshing-out of their characters.”

Indeed, while issues and the candidate’s command of them matters, some debate experts argue that what’s just as important, if not more, is the way candidates handle themselves under pressure: what kind of a leader they’ll be when the heats on. The format of Friday’s foreign policy debate is designed, in part, to help people get a sense of that. It’s broken into 10-minute segments. At the end of each there will be a kind of free-for-all where the candidates can challenge each other in any way they want.

“That is not only going to make this history-making, but that’s the point where we’ll see the mettle of each person as a leader tested,” says Kathryn Olson, a professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “McCain himself has said he has a temper that can make him impulsive, so I suspect Obama will try to exploit that. Obama has been seen as a little too button-down and aloof, and especially with what’s happening with the economy, Obama is going to have to show he can connect with real people’s woes.”