Image: John McCain
Brian Snyder  /  Reuters
Republican nominee Sen. John McCain boards his plane in Arlington, Va., Friday on his way to the first debate with his rival Sen. Barack Obama.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/26/2008 8:48:49 PM ET 2008-09-27T00:48:49

There was no way Friday night’s debate in Oxford, Miss., was going to be like any previous presidential face-off.

After all, it's set to happen as the nation remains in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

In prior presidential campaigns, “debate prep” meant a candidate entered a kind of short-stay political monastery. That's where they'd quietly study briefing books, huddle in talks with strategists, and run through mock debate sessions with a stand-in representing the opponent.

“Debate prep” was essentially the calm before the storm. But this time, the storm has been raging in the hours leading up to the big event.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s idea of “debate prep” appeared to be: improvise dramatically and change the traditional expectations for a debate.

McCain's unorthodox playbook
Like a scrambling quarterback calling never-before-seen plays from his playbook, McCain seems to be engaged in war of nerves with his Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama.

Not until Friday morning did McCain announce he would show up for the debate.

It was unclear what exactly McCain had accomplished by leaving the campaign trail and flying back to Washington Thursday to take part in talks on the Bush administration’s $700 billion proposal to rescue banks and investment firms.

McCain faces a choice: endorse or oppose the $700 billion bailout designed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the House Financial Services Committee chairman, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

If he opposes the plan, perhaps he could make his new campaign slogan: “I’m against bailing out Wall Street.”

Yet if he chooses to campaign as the anti-bailout candidate, McCain runs the risk of having the package pass and produce short-term results, making him look wrong for having opposed it.

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The benefit of hindsight: Highlights from past presidential debates

McCain's dilemma
But the Republican base — whom McCain cannot afford to alienate — is up in arms about the cost of the Paulson-Frank plan.

The bailout would, said veteran conservative activist Richard Viguerie, “take us strongly toward a socialist America.”

Conservative Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said the Paulson-Frank plan would result in the “enslavement” of the American people through the higher taxes to pay for it.

If McCain endorses the Paulson-Frank plan — after leaving its survival in doubt for a few days — he could lose many of the Republicans he needs to win the election.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed to relish his opportunity to highlight McCain’s dilemma.

“The insertion of presidential politics has not been helpful, it’s been harmful,” Reid said at a briefing for reporters at the Capitol Friday on the bailout negotiations.

“A few days ago I called on Sen. McCain to take a stand, let us know where he stands on the issue on this bailout. But all he has done is stand in front of the cameras.”

What was McCain up to?

Changing the story line
“The basic idea to change the dominant story line of the campaign isn’t too surprising for a candidate trailing in the polls, but it does create a really interesting moment tonight,” said Gordon Stables, the debate director at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

“Most candidates typically lower expectations for debates, but McCain’s last 48 hours highlights the importance of their performances tonight,” he said. “This debate may have the greatest buildup of any presidential debate in recent memory.”

Stables said the only advantage McCain possesses is “that he is directing events."

"In some cases they haven’t worked as he hoped (no deal, but debate tonight) but he is still able to drive news coverage and force Obama to react to his decisions,” said Stables.

Since the debate rulebook was tossed aside by the extraordinary events of this week, it’s useful to recall the lessons of previous debates.

Video: McCain to take part in debate

Ford's gaffe in 1976
What we most remember is either a candidate making a glaring error, or calmly reassuring the electorate that he really is capable of bearing the responsibility of being president.

“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration,” declared President Gerald Ford in his second debate with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.

It was Carter, the little-known one-term governor of Georgia, who was supposed to the neophyte on foreign policy, but Ford blundered his way in a historic debate gaffe.

His questioner, Max Frankel of the New York Times, couldn’t quite believe his ears.

“Did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there…?” asked a baffled Frankel.

Ford’s error was only one reason why he lost to Carter, but it's still an important one.

Reagan focused voters
“It might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?” Republican challenger Ronald Reagan gently asked Americans at the very end of his one debate with Carter in 1980.

Reagan focused voters’ attention exactly on the most pertinent question.

Carter had tried to portray Reagan as too extreme, using the word “radical” three separate times during the debate to describe his policies.

But with the Iranian hostage crisis and a 13 percent annual inflation rate, voters saw Reagan as a risk well worth taking.

Friday night at the debate, it may be the untested Obama who is playing the Reagan role as the one seeking to assure voters that he is a risk worth taking.

And it will be McCain, after a week of risk taking, whom observers will be watching for the next surprise.

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