Third Obama-McCain presidential debate preview

U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain meet at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. tonight for their third and final debate of the 2008 race. Does McCain still have a chance to turn his campaign around? Can Obama conclusively nail the race tonight?

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Barack Obama has what looks like an overwhelming lead in Electoral College votes, according to most polls, and he continues to press the Republican candidate in states that McCain should have sewn up a long time ago.

But John McCain has been newly energized about promoting his plan for handling the current economic crisis and recharging the U.S. economy. Tonight’s debate is viewed by some analysts as a do-or-die moment for the McCain campaign, when he either will seize his last chance to get American voters excited about his candidacy or watch the presidency slip irretrievably out of reach.

I’ll make my own prediction — it’s a safe one — and say that neither candidate will do anything tonight to change the minds of voters who already have made up their minds for the other guy. Furthermore, my guess is that Obama will convince some undecided voters to throw in with him, but will still leave most of the undecideds questioning who should get their votes.

John McCain

John McCain

However, this debate does present a convenient opportunity for McCain to decide how he wants this campaign to fit into his legacy as a war hero and respected legislator. Does he make one last push in an attempt to surmount long odds, using whatever methods are expedient, at the risk of marring his reputation even if he wins? Or does he look beyond this election, distance himself from some of the campaign tactics he previously disavowed but now employs, and ask history to remember him as he was before this run for the White House?

That’s a choice only McCain can make — but if he want to keep pushing for the presidency, he needs to take advantage of tonight’s debate, even though the debate alone is highly unlikely to make the difference.

McCain has spent the past few days pushing an economic plan that he bills as new, even though much of it simply reflects the core of the Republican economic agenda of the past decade or so. But it sounds new enough to most people that McCain should keep going back to it as often as possible in the debate.

He needs to do tonight what Obama did in the first debate: present concrete ideas in clear, simple language. If McCain did no more than adopt Obama’s answering style of a simple preface followed by three or four numbered points, he would be way ahead of his performance in the past debates and well on his way to quashing the notion that his campaign has run out of ideas and can’t come up with a credible alternative to Obama’s proposals. Now that McCain has a relatively coherent plan — for the purposes of the election it doesn’t really matter whether it will work as economic policy or not — he needs to push it and push it and push it.

Obama could choose to play defense tonight, seeking long-term victory by simply avoiding errors in the debate. If he can, though, Obama should use the debate to keep McCain off-balance. McCain’s best ammo for the debate is his “new” economic plan, but pushing it as strongly as he will need to leaves McCain vulnerable to Obama coming out with a strong presentation of his own domestic policy plans.

Both candidates would be unwise to even address the attacks their campaigns have made on each other in the past two weeks. It makes for dull television and seems not to play well with undecided voters in this election.

The debate starts at 6 p.m. Pacific time, 9 p.m. Eastern. On nearly everywhere. Ostensibly the topic is domestic policy, but both candidates are likely to direct their answers where they want to go.

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Parting Shots: I’m no economist, but there’s one idea both Obama and McCain have suggested recently that even I know is foolish in the extreme. That idea is the proposal to offer tax relief to people withdrawing money early from their 401Ks and other retirement savings accounts, and it’s dumb on two levels. First, for many people this will serve merely to enable them to put off reckoning with their overextended lifestyle, giving them a way to spend money they previously had reluctantly saved. When that money is gone, what good will it have done them? Second, at a time when investors only worsen the economic downturn when they withdraw their money from the market, this proposal would give many more people a tax incentive to do just that. It doesn’t make any sense.
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