Because the debates can be as much about getting into a comfort zone as actually hitting the right notes on the issues (see sighing; Al Gore), the first one is critical – even when it happens on a Friday night. And because the opening round is supposed to focus on foreign policy, approaching that commander-in-chief level is going to be critical.
For John McCain, the first debate should fit right into his wheelhouse. The war in Iraq has faded as a potent campaign issue for Barack Obama and while most voters still say it was a mistake, they are more willing to say things are going well there now. Decades spent on the kinds of issues the candidates will address Friday night should help McCain deal with any wildcards that might come up. But the bar is a little higher for McCain because of all that experience, magnifying any missteps.
One area where McCain should be expected to be at a disadvantage is style. Where he can come off as choppy or even cranky at times, Barack Obama is seen as having a better command of the stage. Over 20 primary debates against Senate pros like Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden helped him hone his skills. But it's been several months since the last debate he participated in.
Look for both campaigns to begin setting up the expectations game along some of these lines. Democrats will try to raise them on McCain's foreign policy credentials and Republicans will likely wonder aloud whether their candidate can share the stage with a "star" like Obama.
The reality is that the two candidates should be fairly well-matched, both on policy and in personality. With his opposition to the war, his pivot towards increasing the U.S. effort in Afghanistan and his successful overseas trip this summer, Obama has gone a long way toward erasing doubts about his ability to be commander in chief. And McCain has at times flashed the kind of style that made him a media celebrity in his own right throughout his career. His performance at Saddleback Church was widely praised in comparison to Obama's.
What voters come away with in terms of their impressions will be far more important than their expectations going in. But that won't stop the gamesmanship leading up to the first debate.
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