(NASHVILLE, TENN.) Barack Obama is heading to the debate tonight ready to fight, according to campaign aides, but they add he will not be the first to throw a punch.
"We're going to talk about the issues that are important to the American people, but we're prepared for a very aggressive debate," Obama campaign chief strategist David Axelrod said on the flight to Nashville.
"The question is: Which John McCain does he bring?" spokeswoman Jen Psaki asked this morning, adding, "If John McCain wants to attack, we will respond accordingly."
Obama has spent the last two and a half days of "rigorous" debate prep at a mountain resort in Ashville, N.C. Advisers Anita Dunn, David Axelrod, and Robert Gibbs were all on hand to prep the Democratic nominee, with Washington, D.C. lawyer Greg Craig reprising his role as McCain. Advisers focused more on the town hall format of debate, rather than specific issues.
"He doesn't have to relearn a message," Axelrod said.
While he may not have had to prep on the issues, Obama did prepare to answer questions that McCain may raise about his character or associations, including his ties to Weather Underground founder William Ayers. Obama also prepared to discuss the McCain's Keating Five scandal, which Axelrod said is not an abstract issue.
"The Keating case is pretty germane to the discussion we're having right now," Axelrod argued, adding that the scandal was an example of McCain's position on regulation of financial institutions.
Early this morning, the campaign was already downplaying expectations for debate.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in an e-mail, "When it comes to sheer format, we enter today's debate the decided underdog. John McCain does extremely well in town hall settings. It's been his favorite format throughout his career and we think that he will of course do very well."