"I think you come away from watching Senator Obama understanding that this isn't his strong suit," Mr. Gibbs, Obama's communications director, told a Monitor breakfast Thursday. "Sometimes it takes 60 seconds for him to clear his throat."
Now that agreement has been reached in principle on a financial bailout package on Capitol Hill, it is looking increasingly likely that the first presidential debate of the 2008 general election will go ahead after all on Friday night in Oxford, Miss.
Republican John McCain had proposed postponing the debate until an accord had been reached.
But even before word of an agreement, aides to both candidates were busy setting expectations for debate performance - a time-honored tradition in the game of politics.
On Wednesday, Mike DuHaime, a top aide to Senator McCain, praised Obama's debating prowess at a Monitor luncheon. "We know Senator Obama is a phenomenal debater," he said, as reporters chuckled. He is "one of the most gifted orators that we've seen."
On Thursday, one could not be blamed for thinking Gibbs was describing a completely different person when he talked about Obama's debate habits: "He tends to get a question, describe the problem, tell a story, give some solutions, and you pray to God that that isn't 45 seconds longer than you've been allotted to speak."
"Senator McCain goes into this with a decided advantage, having staked his candidacy on 26 years of Washington experience and foreign policy experience," Gibbs said. "Senator McCain has spent some portion of this campaign mocking us for our lack of knowledge on foreign policy. I would expect that somebody who does that kind of stuff is exceedingly confident going into a debate where the issue terrain is what he's mocked his opponent on."
Even before word emerged Thursday afternoon that a financial bailout agreement was on its way, Gibbs expressed confidence that McCain would take part in the debate.
"I think he will be there," Gibbs said. "I think he will decide that a president is capable of doing more than one thing at a time."
And if McCain really opts out of the debate in the name of putting "country first" at a time of financial crisis, as he suggested, Obama is willing to stand alone on stage at the University of Mississippi.
"He's practicing his part in this, so we're prepared to take questions from Jim Lehrer with or without John McCain," said Mr. Gibbs.
The presidential debates had been planned long in advance with dates and topics negotiated to meet a variety of requirements - including a desire not to conflict with Major League Baseball playoffs and Jewish high holidays. The risk for Obama, in vowing to press ahead with the debates as scheduled, is that it would look as if politics was just as important to him as a financial crisis that threatened the collapse of the American and global economies.
Gibbs argued that the timing is right for a debate. "I can't think of a better opportunity to talk about a global financial crisis than in a debate where the discussion is about global affairs," he said. "The moderator already let each of the teams know in advance that the subject of the financial crisis would lead to questioning in the debate."
"Forty days from today, one of these two presidential candidates is going to be the president elect of the United States of America, and for all intents and purposes inherit all of these individual crises and messes and have to deal with them," Gibbs continued.
"I think that the president of the United States is going to have to be able to do more than one thing at a time. I think we can make significant progress, I think the Hill is making significant progress on a series of principles that we have been talking about for almost a week as it relates to this financial crisis. I think we can do both that and somehow still end up in Oxford at 9 p.m. on a Friday night to discuss this and other issues."
Gibbs mocked the idea that McCain had "suspended" his presidential campaign, citing numerous examples of how the campaign was proceeding apace.
"I was on TV with [McCain aide] Nicolle Wallace today, so if they suspended her she didn't get the memo," he said, referring to a McCain spokeswoman.
Another crack: "I bet if I went online and tried to give them five bucks, somehow I bet the Internet would somehow process my Visa."
He also referenced McCain's decision to cancel a scheduled appearance Wednesday on CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman." Mr. Letterman did not hide his irritation. Check the YouTube of his reaction, Gibbs suggests.
Letterman was further infuriated when he discovered that McCain was a few blocks away preparing for an interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric.
Ms. Wallace, the McCain spokeswoman, said Thursday that the campaign "felt this wasn't a night for comedy," according to MSNBC.
McCain addressed the Clinton Global Initiative in New York Thursday morning, in person, while Obama was to address the same forum Thursday via satellite. Both McCain and Obama are to be at the White House for a meeting Thursday afternoon with President Bush and congressional leaders on the bailout plan.