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Starting Gate: Five Questions For The Final Debate

With less than three weeks now remaining in this marathon presidential election, Barack Obama and John McCain meet tonight for the final presidential debate. It's a moment when the race appears to be at a tipping point and it couldn't come at a more crucial point in the campaign. Here are five questions heading into the final showdown:

1. What Can McCain Do? The Republican nominee hinted at an intent to "take the gloves" off and go after Obama on issues of character prior to last week's debate but that didn't exactly pan out. Even if the debates have yielded little in the way of personal attacks, the McCain campaign has done little else but talk about Obama's associations with the likes of William Ayers for the past few weeks.

But that tactic appears to have backfired big-time against McCain as respondents in the new CBS News/New York Times poll cited those attacks as one of the main reasons why more see him unfavorably and, in turn, why he finds himself 14-points behind among likely voters in the poll. Given that, what does McCain do in tonight's debate? He needs something to turn around the momentum Obama is clearly riding. But if he goes on the attack, it could backfire. If he tries for that out-of-the-blue proposal or pronouncement, it could seem desperate or gimmicky (like his decision to suspend his campaign last month). If he sticks to his campaign talking point, that isn't likely to change the current dynamic. Is McCain out of debate options?

2. Can Obama Close It Out? Obama won the past two debates according to just about every single measure, and is widely expected to finish up with another "win" tonight. Those expectations could be a problem if the Democratic nominee stumbles in any major way but he's shown almost no proclivity to do so in the many, many debates he's been in throughout the past year.

For Obama, it's an opportunity to clear one more hurdle. Most voters see McCain as better prepared overall to be president and give him higher marks on the Commander-In-Chief issue. So far, focus on the economy has negated those advantages for McCain but it remains one of the only remaining threats to Obama. Another solid performance could help ease any remaining concerns about him the way it has with other presidential candidates in the past, like Ronald Reagan. Can Obama erase those lingering doubts?

3. Is There A "Sigh" Factor At Work? Since their inception, televised presidential debates have arguably been more about perceptions than what the candidates actually say. Richard Nixon looked pale, unshaven and sweaty in his encounter with John Kennedy. George W. Bush looked at his watch while Bill Clinton and Ross Perot felt the pain of voters. Al Gore sighed obnoxiously at George W. Bush's answers in the 2000 debates.

There may be something similar at play here. While Democrats generically have maintained a huge advantage overall throughout the year, voters have signaled at least a willingness to be open to McCain's candidacy. His body language through the first two debates, however, may have closed that door to some. He seemed unwilling to even look at his opponent in the first debate and in the second, he called him "that one." Rather than the happy warrior, McCain appears agitated, if not angry, to be facing off against a first-term Illinois Senator for the highest office in the land. While Obama routinely allows that McCain is "right" about one point or another, McCain more often says his opponent just doesn't "understand." Is this dynamic part of the reason Obama has surged ahead in the polls and will it continue tonight?

4. Is There Room For A Game-Changer? If the first two debates did not produce that definitive "moment," is it too late for it to happen in the this last one? One thing about political perceptions is they almost always change over time, not in an instant. Even casual voters who have tuned into the campaign in the past couple of months have formed their impressions of each of these candidates and most have begun making up their minds. That means it will take more than a flub or stumble to reverse them, it will take a momentous mistake of some sort that cements concerns that are already there. Can that happen in one final 90-minute exchange?

5. Who Will Be Watching? After a rather low-rated first debate, last week's face-off drew a much larger audience. Over 63 million people tuned in for the town-hall forum in Nashville (still smaller than the nearly 70 million who watched the VP debate). Who will tune in tonight? While the debate is more or less "roadblocked," meaning it's carried on most every major channel, there is a playoff baseball game on and plenty of other diversions for voters. If, as polls indicate, more and more voters have begun deciding, will they even tune in? Even though the debate will be thoroughly reported on and any big moments replayed again and again, a smaller live audience may lessen McCain's chances to change voters' minds.