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Starting Gate: Five Questions For Tonight's Debate

[Updated, bumped] (OXFORD, MISS.) As the 2008 presidential campaign reaches what could be its penultimate moment, it's almost impossible to overstate the importance of the series of debates which are supposed to kick off here at the University of Mississippi tonight. Amid intense interest and uncertain national footing both domestically and abroad, tonight's debate should have an excellent chance of breaking records for viewership and will go a long way toward solidifying attitudes toward two candidates locked in a tight race.

John McCain's move to suspend his campaign and his threat to skip the debate if no compromise is found on the proposed Wall Street bailout to help soothe the nation's financial crisis has put tonight's event up in the air, though the betting is McCain will show. Outside of the most obvious (will there BE a debate? Update: Yes, Mississippi, there will be a debate), here are five key questions heading into the first presidential debate:

1. Has McCain Raised The Stakes Even Higher? A record 38.9 million viewers tuned in to watch McCain's acceptance speech earlier this month, just edging out the previous record for such an event – set by Obama a week before. The full slate of candidates shattered fundraising records over the past year and a half and voter registration is through the roof around the country – all indicators of voter interest in this campaign.

McCain's moves this week may or may not have done anything to shake up the underlying dynamics of a race in which Obama appears to have at least a slight edge, but it's almost guaranteed to raise interest in the debate. For a candidate widely seen at a disadvantage in the type of event we'll see tonight, shouldn't he have been trying to downplay the importance of it? Friday night debates are typically not the highest rated in a presidential election (thought that does not make them any less important) but McCain has just spent several days very much advertising the event. Will it backfire?

2. Is Obama Rattled? The Democratic candidate was supposed to be spending the vast majority of the last three days preparing for the debate in Florida. Instead, he found himself responding to McCain's moves, or what Democrats call a stunt. Political gamesmanship or not, McCain has shown a knack of getting under Obama's skin and catching him off guard.

When McCain's campaign began picking away at Obama's image with humorous and mocking characterizations, Obama was slow to respond and as a result, watched his summertime lead begin to chip off. When Sarah Palin was announced, the response from the campaign teetered between disparaging the pick and ignoring it. Obama's response to this latest maneuver was quicker, and almost certainly more effective. But rather than getting prepped for a debate, Obama was flying back to Washington yesterday for a meeting at the White House and he hasn't appeared pleased. Has McCain gotten into Obama's head a little too much?

3. What Of National Security? Remember when this campaign was expected to be as much about the war in Iraq than anything else? Tonight's debate is supposed to be focused on national security and foreign policy but it's almost certain to be dominated by focus on the financial crisis. Moderator Jim Lehrer, of PBS, has indicated in recent days that he is not limited to only foreign policy.

This raises the profile on an issue Obama does well on among voters – the economy – and diminishes McCain's perceived strength on national security. No politician outside of the president is more closely associated with the surge strategy in Iraq, a strategy that has been credited with improving the situation in Iraq even while most voters say the war was a mistake. It's something that should help McCain but it's likely to be overshadowed by the economic discussion. The bigger question is, if not tonight, will national security make a return in the next two debates, one of which is a "town hall" style meeting, the other which is supposed to be focused on domestic issues?

4. Is There A Missile Gap? Assuming that there will be at least some discussion of foreign policy tonight, it's not a slam-dunk win for McCain, although it should favor him. But Obama has managed to close the gap to some extent on the issue of foreign policy and national security much in the same way John Kennedy did in 1960.

That year, the Democratic candidate basically ran to the right against Richard Nixon on foreign issues, warning Americans of a "missile gap" that existed in the budding arms race with the Soviet Union. In the years since, Democrats have become more closely associated in the minds of voters with negotiation, anti-war sentiments and peace movements. As the only major presidential candidate to have initially opposed the war in Iraq, Obama won the support of that wing of his party. And his willingness on meeting with foreign leaders of adversarial nations has opened him up to traditional charges of weakness by Republicans.

But Obama has coupled that with a tough approach to Afghanistan that originally went even further than the Bush administration. Obama has been an early advocate of sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and surprisingly supported unilateral action in Pakistan to capture or kill al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden. Doing so has allowed him to claim to be tough and right at the same time and has helped close the gap just a little on an issue that has been a thorn in his party's side for a very long time. And just a little may be enough to win. Can McCain regain that ground tonight?

5. Who Will Have "The Moment?" The defining moments in presidential debates are hardly ever about policy, they're about impressions. The first ever televised presidential debate is remembered for how a youthful-looking Kennedy contrasted with a sweaty, pasty Nixon and his five o'clock shadow. Michael Dukakis looked cold and detached when saying he would still oppose the death penalty if someone raped and killed his wife. George H.W. Bush looked annoyed when he glanced at his watch and Al Gore looked annoying with his frequent and dramatic sighs.

These are the moments that, for better or worse, help shape voters' feelings about the candidates. After all the campaigning, there are still plenty of voters who don't know the ins-and-outs of the candidates on the issues. More important is who connects with them, either on a personal level or as a leader. Will McCain come across as too old and out of touch? Will Obama appear aloof and unapproachable? One thing is almost certain, there will be a moment in these debates that crystallizes the race in some way. What will that be?

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