Finally, after three weeks of post-convention idling which included conversations about lipstick on pigs, the presidential campaign moves into overdrive this Friday night with the first of three scheduled debates between Barack Obama and John McCain taking place at Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss. (the symbolism of the first African-American presidential nominee debating at Ole Miss is certainly not lost on many people, myself included).
The theme of this Friday's debate is national security, and it offers both candidates an opportunity. For McCain, it offers a chance to regain his footing after a rather disastrous week for his campaign during which he saw his two-point lead in the polls turn into a six-point lead for Obama while the national conversation was fixated squarely on the economy. For Obama, it offers a chance to prove his bona fides on foreign policy issues. The stakes are high for Obama, and if he clearly demonstrates knowledge on global issues and offers some proof to undecided voters that he can be trusted to keep us safe, the debate could boost his support with independent voters.
Look for McCain to repeatedly praise the Iraq War "surge" and repeatedly raise the issue of Russia's invasion of Georgia last month; look for him to also raise this issue of offshore oil drilling and connect it to the effect that our dependency on Middle Eastern oil has on our security. He will probably argue that we cannot leave Iraq until at least 2013; that the U.S. must continue to advance the eastward expansion of NATO by backing Georgian and Ukrainian accession into that organization; that Israel must be unconditionally supported by the United States; that Iran "must not be allowed" to get a nuclear weapon and that we will go to war with them to prevent this if necessary, or that we will approve of any Israeli action to prevent the same.
Look for Obama to repeatedly assert that the U.S. needs to abandon the Bush Doctrine and seek more diplomacy, that McCain's foreign policy is "more of the same" and that we must be "as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in." Specifically, he will likely argue that we can leave Iraq by 2011; that we must send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan; that the U.S. will intervene in Pakistan to chase al-Qaeda if necessary; that Russia's behavior as of late was troubling but we need not start a new Cold War with them; that Iran "must not be allowed" to get a nuclear weapon; that Israel is a strong ally; that the United States must stop acting unilaterally; and that our dependence on foreign oil is harmful to our national security (and that we therefore need to embrace the T. Boone Pickens plan, or something like it).
In order to have a successful night, McCain will probably need to trip Obama up on the particulars about Iraq and paint him as a neophyte on foreign policy (he needs to be careful about this, though, because his running mate's only foreign policy experience is that she gets to determine how friendly Alaska should be to Canada). He will probably use talking points as answers and try to bait Obama into a wordy and nuanced answer so that he looks forceful and decisive by comparison.
To have a successful night, Obama will need to avoid long-winded and generalized answers, tether McCain to Bush's foreign policy and emphasize that McCain's recent rhetoric and behavior over the Russia-Georgia row is indicative of a hot-headedness that could potentially get us into more wars (especially with Iran). On Iraq, he'll need to admit the surge succeeded in reducing violence in Iraq but emphasize that it failed in its primary goal of bringing about political reconciliation amongst the Iraqis and reind people of the needless cost of Iraq in terms of American blood and treasure. McCain is very thin-skinned, and Obama will need to remain cool when attacked while also trying to visibly irritate McCain with his attacks.
Overall, the debate will be crucially important to both men, and whoever is declared "the winner" will have a significant spike in momentum for the next few weeks.
Friday's debate starts at 9 p.m. and will be televised on all three cable news channels. Be sure to tune in for what will surely be the best opportunity yet to see both candidates in action.