The 961st debate of the presidential election season will be held Wednesday night at Hofstra University in New York. At this point you know well the participants: John McCain, the great American hero who spent five and a half years locked in a North Kansas City prison camp where he was forced to watch Neifi Perez take batting practice on a daily basis. He was only able to survive by repeatedly carving the word "maverick" into the bamboo of his cage. And then there's the Democrat Barack Obama, born in Hope Memorial Hospital in Hope City, the capitol of Hope Island, America's 50th state. In college, Obama majored in Sauntering Up To Attractive Women And Making Them Swoon By Saying "Hey, How You Doin'?"
Wednesday night they'll discuss the important issues. The economic crisis. Global climate change. That guy in 7th grade Obama ate lunch with one day who eventually racked up over $3,400 in unpaid parking tickets in...San Francisco. It's all going to be on the table when McCain, Obama and CBS anchor Bob Schieffer shoot the breeze. Seriously, they're going to be sitting down. God only knows what surprises that radical format will birth. Maybe McCain will light up a joint and invite Obama to take a hit. There's a glorious rainbow of possibilities.
You can find more witty insights like the ones you just read Wednesday night, when I'll be liveblogging the debate. It will be my second liveblog; I skipped the second presidential debate because I was generously volunteering at my high school alma mater, and I skipped the vice presidential debate because I wanted to.
But this affair's interesting in that I don't know what to expect. You may recall that I expected McCain to come into the second debate and attack Obama. He did attack, but not with any verve and not with any original lines. He didn't mention William Ayers. He later explained that the issue never came up "in the flow of the debate," and while that was kind of a pathetic post-debate rationalization, it had the advantage of being true. None of the audience members asked about Ayers. None of them asked a question that could conceivably be viewed as dealing with Ayers. McCain's not skillful enough to pivot away from the question and hit his (completely unrelated) talking points, and he's not shameless enough to ape his running mate's tactic of openly announcing that she's ignoring the question.
So we'll see what happens Wednesday. To put it bluntly, McCain is losing the election. If things stay on their normal course, with the remaining 20+ days sort of teeter-tottering in the usual fashion, with Obama winning one day and McCain winning the next, McCain loses. He needs something out of the ordinary. The other team is preternaturally poised and disciplined. They're not going to give you an epic mistake on a silver platter. McCain's going to have to manufacture a gamechanger out of whole cloth.
Wednesday's his best chance to do that, but it's not going to be easy. Obama's shown in two debates that he can appear calm and presidential, which is more than you can say for McCain. If McCain wants to do something with the Ayers or Jeremiah Wright cards, he has to do it Wednesday.
How and where to bring it up are the difficult questions. McCain's camp desperately wants Schieffer to ask about Ayers without prompting from their candidate. It would introduce the topic into the debate without McCain having to raise it. If Schieffer doesn't ask the question, McCain has to decide whether he gains or loses from raising the issue without prompting. He's been getting hammered for the frighteningly hostile nature of his recent rallies. If it's perceived that he's doing anything to rile up those supporters, the post-debate stories are going to be unpleasant. Which in turn will make his supporters angrier. Which in turn will make his rallies more frightening. Which in turn will make the stories unpleasant. Which in turn...
Obama's strategy is the same as its been for the past month: throw some jabs, parry the minor attacks and dance away from the big punches. He's winning. The entire structure of the race is in his favor. Some will demand aggression from him, but that's not Obama's style, and considering what the campaign has overcome to reach this point, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt on tactics.