Republican presidential nominee John McCain may not have much to gain at tonight's presidential debate, some University of Iowa political experts speculated Tuesday.
At this point in the electoral process, undecided voters are rare, and most people have already cemented their first impressions, political-science Associate Professor Cary Covington said.
"I think McCain has to shore up support rather than make up new ground," he said. "Now the debates, more or less, will be used to confirm or reinforce whatever leanings or tentative leanings [voters] have."
But for the senior Arizona senator, that may not be enough.
The third debate - which will focus on economic and domestic issues - comes amid polls showing McCain trailing in key battleground states and voters starting to swing toward Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama on economic matters.
Tuesday's Gallup Daily Tracking poll had Obama ahead by nine points, and Pollster.com showed the Illinois senator leading McCain in Iowa by 11.
One UI political communication expert outlined the McCain's debate message conundrum: Should he attack Obama personally tonight, adopting his recent, "I'm a fighter" persona - or go an alternate route?
"He's got to decide whether that kind of attack strategy - a fighter that includes those personal elements - will be what will carry him out of the hole he's in," said Bruce Gronbeck, the director of the UI Center for Media Studies and Political Culture.
Gronbeck also castigated the "stiff nature" of the previous two debates, faulting the two campaigns for putting straitjackets on McCain's and Obama's debating styles. Other famous debaters haven't acted as subdued, Gronbeck noted, pointing to former President Bill Clinton's effervescence during his 1992 debates.
"It really does move around, and it depends on the candidates," Gronbeck said.
The two candidates exhibited stark differences in their debating styles during the first matches, said David Hingstman, a UI associate professor of communications studies.
Obama speaks in professorial terms and "tries to reassure on character issues by maintaining an air of confidence and a strong masculine demeanor in his delivery," Hingstman said.
McCain, whose answers are more emotionally charged, "believes that character and [issues] must be closely intertwined," said Hingstman.
"Whether it works or not depends on what qualities the individual observer is looking for in a president," he said in an e-mail.
Two debates in, observers disagreed on the effectiveness of each nominee's debating styles.
Hingstman gave both candidates high marks, while Covington lauded Obama's ability to assuage some potential concerns of Americans.
"I don't think he's won people over so much as he's calmed some fears," Covington said.