The Note: Long Island Sounds

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- This night, at least, they won't be far apart.

As the big shots gather for one final time in the longest time that's been the 2008 campaign, cue the careless talk over which strangers will make an appearance: Bill Ayers? Tony Rezko? The John McCain that Sarah Palin has been hoping for? The Barack Obama that Hillary Clinton had been hoping for?

But you may be right that there's a bigger question forming a storm front over Long Island Wednesday: Does any of it matter?

So it goes like this: McCain is caught in the worst kind of no man's land 20 days out, behind by just enough for it to keep him out of range of a second wind. Obama is not the angry young man, and he has answered the question of whether he belongs on the same stage as McCain.

McCain's attacks (and those he might yet launch) are under the complex pressure of mixed messaging (maybe that's not his style) and fears of backlash (don't ask me why).

It's Obama who, from the previous encounters, derived the most benefit -- as reflected by the polls (14 points in the latest NYT/CBS numbers), and the race's psychology.

And the build-up over what strategy McCain will employ makes that a story regardless: Either he finally attacks, and risks looking desperate, or he doesn't, and risks looking like he senses that he sees the lights going out.

"Every indication -- including a New York Times/CBS News poll released Tuesday that showed Mr. Obama vaulting to a significant lead -- suggests that Mr. Obama has succeeded in erasing many of those doubts [about his candidacy], primarily through the debates," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.

"Mr. McCain is highly unlikely to let this third and final debate -- the last time in the campaign that he will command an audience anywhere near this size -- pass without a fight," Nagourney writes. "Still, history suggests that barring a major mistake by Mr. Obama -- who has over this year not made many -- or some startling new attack or appeal by Mr. McCain, it will be hard to erase the impressions that Mr. Obama left in the first two debates."

As for Ayers: "Speaking to a St. Louis radio station on Tuesday, John McCain said that Barack Obama's recent suggestion that McCain does not have guts to raise the Bill Ayers issue to his face 'probably ensured' that the former Weather Underground leader will come up in Wednesday's final presidential debate," per ABC's Ron Claiborne, Teddy Davis, and Arnab Datta.

Said McCain: "I was astonished to hear him say that he was surprised for me to have the guts to do that. Because the fact is that the question did not come up in that fashion so -- you know -- I think he's probably ensured that it will come up this time."

Will a mere mention mean anything this late? Recall that the real impact of Hillary Clinton's most aggressive debate ("slumlord" Rezko) was that it shaped the press coverage going forward. That came in January, with a full primary season still ahead of us. We're now in mid-October.

What's a maverick to do? "He does have to draw some blood on Barack Obama, but if he goes too negative, he'll reinforce perceptions . . . that he's the one on the attack," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Wednesday.

Unless he does something dramatic -- a one-term pledge, a bipartisan Cabinet announcement, a challenge for more debates -- "there's not a whole lot he can do at this point to change the dynamic in one debate," Stephanopoulos said.

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