Starting Gate: Five Questions For The Second Debate

A lot has happened in the week-and-a-half since the two presidential candidates met in Mississippi for the first of three debates. The looming economic crisis that took a chunk out of what was supposed to be solely a foreign policy and national security debate has deepened despite the bailout both John McCain and Barack Obama supported. Their running mates met in a debate that drew record numbers of viewers (and eclipsed their own encounter ratings-wise). And, more importantly, Obama has opened up a now-solid lead not only in national polling but in the critical state-by-state races where the campaign will be decided. Here are five questions heading into the second debate tonight:

1. Can McCain Score A Win? If the Arizona senator ever needed a debate "victory," it's now. The format, a town-hall style event, appears to favor him. Having done hundreds of such events on the campaign trail, he's much more comfortable being able to range across a stage than standing behind a podium. But it's going to take more than a change in format for McCain to come out of this debate a winner.

As the campaign has grown increasingly negative over the past few days, Sarah Palin signaled that now is the time to "take the gloves off," both for herself and her running mate. But, having already demonstrated a level of disdain for Obama in the last debate, McCain risks coming off as angry or mean if he takes after his opponent too aggressively this time out. Fluctuations in the polls indicate that while voters may be making up their minds, there's still a chance for McCain to swing them. Can he find that combination tonight?

2. Can Obama Play From Ahead? The stakes may be higher for Obama than McCain. As the clear front-runner, he needs to be mistake-free and continue to "look presidential" in order to preserve his lead and further tighten down those voters who may be open to changing their minds in the next month.

If there is a political weakness to Obama's campaign it's been an inability to close – or at least to keep pushing when he has his opponent on the ropes. With a huge advantage in primaries, having won a series of contests in February that almost locked up the nomination early, Obama was soundly beaten in some very big and important states through the spring and ended up stumbling across the finish line in a political sense. During the summer, as Obama was basking in the applause of 200,000 Germans, McCain was chipping away at his lead, energizing his conservative base and pulling even. Can Obama start closing the deal?

3. Does Anyone Have An Answer On The Economy? Throughout the election season, voters have told pollsters that the economy was the issue they were most concerned about. These days, it's about the only issue they're concerned about. So far, Obama looks to have benefitted politically from the economic mess -- if only because his party has a traditional edge on the issue.

Both candidates have leaned rather heavily on the same traditional economic arguments voters have heard for years. But the free market's reputation has taken quite a hit lately and Democratic arguments for more government involvement may turn out to be more popular – depending on how bad the economic crisis appears in a month. If things get too bad, Obama's natural advantage could either be enhanced or fade – it's anyone's guess. The bottom line is that neither candidate has mastered the answers to the nation's ills. That may be because there are no answers, at least no politically palatable ones. But tonight's debate would be a good chance for one of them to show they are at least looking for them.

4. Are Voters Smarter Than The Press? These town-hall style debate can hold surprises. One thing that many reporters, pundits and even campaign operatives sometimes forget is that voters aren't following the campaign at the same level of detail as they are. That's particularly true for those "uncommitted" voters still looking to make up their minds. In a format where voter-submitted questions will be asked, there's a chance that we might see what – if anything – is on the minds of voters other than the economy.

5. Will There Be "A Moment?" Two debates so far have failed to produce a "moment" that seems likely to be replayed in campaigns to come. The reason for that is pretty simple – neither debate has done anything to change the underlying dynamic of the race. With one last debate next week, tonight's face-off seems to offer the best opportunity for one of these candidates – especially McCain – to try and do just that. He needs to reverse the current course of the race, raise doubts in the minds of voter's about Obama's ability to step in at a time of great uncertainty and convince voters he's the right man for the time. Obama's mission is much easier – prevent McCain from doing that. If either scores a decisive "moment," it will likely be one surrounding that question. Who's got the best chance to have "a moment?"