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.
Did someone mention pressure? "The presidential debate at Hofstra University is McCain's last, best chance to shake up a race where everything -- the map, the money and the momentum -- is moving solidly toward Barack Obama," Newsday's Craig Gordon writes.
"McCain's job is twofold and markedly more complex, Republicans say -- raise sharp questions about Obama to sow doubts about his readiness to lead, while also offering a detailed vision for pulling the nation out of an economic crisis," Gordon writes. "What worries some McCain backers is that that was the Arizona senator's exact playbook for the first two debates, and both times, McCain fell short."
This is it: "This may be his last best hope to turn it around," ABC's David Wright reported on "GMA."
"John McCain has pulled a rabbit out of a hat before over the course of his career, but this is going to be a rather large rabbit out of a very small hat," says former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd. "Once the debate is held John McCain's destiny is no longer in his hands."
The final debate is about more than scoring points and checking boxes -- it's about trying to change the direction of a solidifying race.
"It is Obama's almost preternatural calm that will be John McCain's main obstacle at Wednesday night's final presidential debate," Time's Mark Halperin writes. "In order to change the dynamic, McCain will have to produce a major memorable moment at the expense of his rival -- by forcing an error, exposing a flaw or unattractive trait, or revealing an inconsistency or weakness -- which would then be replayed incessantly on the airwaves, rapaciously dissected by the media, and seized upon by the public."
The argument for pulling punches: "To paraphrase the wise old song, dignity is just another word for nothing left to lose. McCain might lose the election, but he doesn't have to lose his reputation in the process," Halperin writes.
Along those lines -- McCain's brother, Joe, is among those lobbying for the McCain campaign to "Let John McCain be John McCain. "Make ads that show John not as crank and curmudgeon but as a great leader for his time," Joe McCain wrote in a missive to top campaign and party officials late Monday, The Baltimore Sun's Paul West reports.
"The debates are making a difference," Republican pollster Neil Newhouse tells West, "but they are making the difference for Barack Obama, not necessarily for John McCain."
Anyone else having trouble keeping track? "The new McCain . . . appears to have some of his supporters pining for the old version, the one who would bring up Bill Ayers and challenge his opponent's character more directly, asking, conspiratorially, 'Who is Barack Obama?' You know, the McCain from last week," Salon's Mike Madden writes.
"A good rule, for anyone scoring at home, might be this: If you find yourself bored while watching the debate, Obama is probably winning," Madden continues. "But for McCain, a lot of fireworks, if he deploys them badly, might turn out to mean the same thing."