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Nashville debate make or break for McCain

John McCain can keep this race competitive regardless of Tuesday's debate, but if he’s going to win the presidency and not just survive the campaign, significant progress must be made tonight.
Image: John McCain
John McCain campaigns in Albuquerque, N.M., on Monday, a day before his debate tonight with Barack Obama.Gerald Herbert / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Midway through this debate season, voters offered their opinions on the presidential tickets — and which one they think has performed best.

By a substantial margin, voters told multiple pollsters that the Obama-Biden ticket has easily outperformed the McCain-Palin ticket.

As the trailing team headed into four weeks of debates, John McCain’s campaign could not afford to lose any of those televised battles. But losing them they are.

And what’s more, they’re losing the debate perception game. That’s got to be especially frustrating since McCain’s advisors have so far been pleased with the ticket’s performances.

Good enough to break even
McCain was aggressive and vigorous in that first debate and Palin was disciplined and charming in hers. Inside the GOP and even inside the media, these showings were thought to at least be good enough to break even.

But that hasn't been the public verdict. And this must have the McCain debate prep team a bit flummoxed as they head into Tuesday night and next week.

What do voters want from these debates?

Whatever it is, McCain hasn't given it to them. Maybe they want more detail, maybe they want more anti-Bush rhetoric, or maybe the want more pointed contrasts with rival Barack Obama.

This last idea is going to be especially tricky for McCain to pull off tonight. Physically, he's going to be close in proximity to Obama and he's going to be answering questions from voters, not the media.

So if McCain pivots too hard to attack mode, he risks looking tone deaf to the current economic crisis and the voters will punish him for that.

Problem solving skills
McCain has to figure out a way to present himself as a credible problem solver. It's what I think Obama has been trying to do for months. Maybe that’s why voters in our NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll have rated him as a better responder to this current economic crisis.

This is Obama's strength, not just looking calm in a storm, but coming across as pragmatic. But he may be lacking the ability to channel the country’s anger. Expect that to be McCain’s opening on Tuesday night.

He needs to be angry but also pragmatic in how he presents himself.

There's a temptation to go negative and perhaps if the McCain camp can successfully raise the "who is this Obama" question with independent voters in places like Virginia, Colorado or North Carolina, he can shore up some of these lean-Red states.

But if our poll is to be believed, these independents want a problem solver as well. So it's a two-pronged approach for the McCain camp.

The pressure is clearly on the Republican. A perceived third debate loss won’t be easy to overcome next Wednesday.

It’s kind of like a baseball team that goes down 0-2 in a short series and the third game becomes must win. Tuesday is must win. It's not an elimination game, but it's close.

McCain can come back and continue to keep this race competitive regardless of his performance in Nashville, but if he’s going to win the presidency and not just survive the campaign, significant progress must be made Tuesday.