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.
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."
Among the other charges Wednesday: "Tonight's presidential debate presents Republican John McCain with perhaps his last chance to reverse the damage that the economic crisis, and his reaction to it, has caused his campaign," Bloomberg's Hans Nichols writes.
"Obama has built leads nationally and in key states as the turmoil has returned the nation's focus to the unpopular Bush's policies. Now, the burden is on McCain to try to reverse his slide," per the AP's Liz Sidoti.
Forget Ayers -- what about Hillary? "She's the most important political figure not on the stage Wednesday in the final presidential debate, yet Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been mentioned just once in the first three presidential and vice-presidential debates," Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times. "That could change with increasingly desperate Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain still looking for voters and with Mrs. Clinton in attendance as Mr. McCain and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, face off in Hempstead, N.Y."
(Speaking of Hillary: "What are the chances of Hillary Clinton running for President again? It depends on what the definition of 'close to zero' is," per the New York Dailiy News' Michael Saul. "Those are the odds Clinton placed on the likelihood of her launching another White House bid -- and she declared absolutely 'no interest' in joining the Supreme Court.")
Recall what Obama never quite did in the primaries: "In many ways, the debate represents a closing moment for Obama -- a final opportunity to bring order to what has been a long, chaotic struggle," the Washington Independent's Sridhar Pappu writes. "But the question remains: Is he capable of a decisive strike -- that moment where everyone can just say that's it, fini?"
Back to the slides: A jaw-dropping 53-39 Obama lead in the new New York Times/CBS poll (a lead that's just begging to be shaved in time for another set of comeback stories?).
Why is McCain staring at 40 from the other side? "The McCain campaign's recent angry tone and sharply personal attacks on Senator Barack Obama appear to have backfired and tarnished Senator John McCain more than their intended target," Michael Cooper and Megan Thee write in the Times. "Six in 10 voters surveyed said that Mr. McCain had spent more time attacking Mr. Obama than explaining what he would do as president; by about the same number, voters said Mr. Obama was spending more of his time explaining than attacking."
(And take this, Bradley believers: "The poll found that Mr. Obama is now supported by majorities of men and independents, two groups that he has been fighting to win over. And the poll found, for the first time, that white voters are just about evenly divided between Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama, who is seeking to become the first African-American president. The poll found that Mr. Obama is supported by 45 percent of white voters -- a greater percentage than has voted for Democrats in recent presidential elections.")
Think those health-care ads are working? The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder: "Which candidate will raise your taxes? Respondents, by 51% to 46%, say it's McCain. (Why? One reason might be Obama's advertising, which claims that McCain's health care plan would raise taxes for 'millions' of Americans.)"
It's 50-41 in the new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll -- and driving the numbers are . . . you guessed it. "With the economy dominant among voter concerns, 56 percent of respondents say they are confident Obama has a plan to deal with the financial crisis. By 50 percent to 41 percent, they don't have similar faith in McCain," Bloomberg's Kristin Jensen and Heidi Przybyla report. (The wrong-track number: Only 84 percent.)
"Obama improved sharply over the last month among independent voters, a much-desired bloc. McCain carried them by a 15-point margin in September; in this poll, Obama led by 5 points," Cathleen Decker writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Men, too, moved toward Obama, with the traditionally Republican-leaning group now in his camp. He also maintained his lead among women."
Key point: "The survey underscored the predicament in which McCain finds himself: Much of his recent effort has been aimed at shifting focus from the economy to questions he has raised about Obama's character. But the nation's financial difficulties are swamping all other issues. And tactics that McCain employed to fuel Republican enthusiasm, such as the Palin selection, have alienated other key groups."
What can McCain do? Some consistency would be a start. "They are not understanding this election at all," Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis tells The Hill's Sam Youngman. "This is a drowning campaign reaching for anything. The thing they don't understand is they keep pouring water on themselves."
Speaking of pouring it on: "In the first three weeks of September, Barack Obama ran 1,342 television commercials in the Washington media market that reaches heavily populated and contested Northern Virginia. According to The Nielsen Company, in the same period and market, John McCain aired just eight commercials on broadcast stations," Politico's Jeanne Cummings reports. "As of close of business last week, Obama had spent approximately $195 million on primary and general election ads compared with $99 million by the Arizona Republican and the Republican National Committee, according to the Competitive Media Analysis Group."
Might Obama be in the midst of a $100 million month? "Obama is building a significant fundraising advantage and is now using that imbalance to swamp McCain on the airwaves and in building turnout operations coast to coast," The Washington Post's Matthew Mosk reports. "Voters in large swaths of Florida will see Obama television commercials dozens of times before catching sight of a McCain ad. A drive across Virginia will wend past 51 Obama field offices, compared with 19 for McCain."
Another bad sign for McCain (again -- who is right where who wants him?): "Talk about having to play defense in the waning days of the campaign. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is scheduled to make stops in Miami and Melbourne, Fla., this Friday. He flies Friday night to Charlotte, N.C., presumably to campaign Saturday in the Tar Heel state," ABC's Ron Claiborne reports. "It is not a favorable sign for the McCain campaign that he is still trying to nail down these two traditionally Republican states."
A test run for the next session? "Buoyed by a slew of recent polls showing that the economy has boosted Obama (Ill.) and Democrats in the House and Senate, Democratic leaders in Congress are aggressively posturing to steamroll Republicans over the economy in the coming weeks," The Hill's Jared Allen writes. "While they have made it clear that they want Obama in the driver's seat, congressional Democrats are providing the horsepower for a potential $300 billion economic stimulus bill that could be five times the size of the package approved by the House in September."
Next step: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., holds a news conference in Nevada Wednesday to call for the new economic recovery package -- designed to create jobs, fight foreclosures, and cut taxes.
Nancy Pelosi, in a USA Today op-ed (quoting the newest Nobel Prize winner, too): "The need for this package is undeniable. America lost nearly 800,000 jobs in the past nine months and 159,000 jobs last month alone. Families throughout the nation are watching as key services -- education, public safety, health care and child safety -- are dramatically reduced. All families are facing higher energy and food costs."
But will anything work? "In the latest, clearest sign that the economy is driving the presidential election, both Barack Obama and John McCain are pitching costly new proposals to more directly help families and businesses squeezed in the financial storm. But both plans drew quick skepticism from analysts who questioned how the ideas will be paid for and if they would work," per The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg and Michael Kranish.
The big thing that's holding back predictions of a race that's just plain over: race.
The New York Times' Adam Nagourney: "Political strategists once assumed that polls might well overstate support for black candidates, since white voters might be reluctant to admit racially tinged sentiments to a pollster. Newer research has cast doubt on that assumption. Either way, the situation is confounding aides on both sides, who like everyone else are waiting to see what role race will play in the privacy of the voting booth."
Says Harold Ickes: "If he were white, this would be a blowout."
But he's not, and it may be a blowout yet: "Across the country, many voters expect that Obama's race will be a factor in the election," ABC's John Berman reports. "But the Bradley effect points to race being a bigger factor. It says voters are misleading pollsters, but some experts said there is simply no reliable evidence to prove that. 'If people wanted to lie to us, it would be much simpler for them simply to decline to participate in the poll in the first place,' said Gary Langer, ABC News' polling director."
Not that there's any pressure or anything: "If Senator McCain doesn't turn out to be so great, well, he is just on a list of presidents that didn't turn out to be so great," Gov. David Paterson, D-N.Y., tells the New York Observer's Jason Horowitz. "If Senator Obama doesn't turn out to be so great, though unfair, it will probably manifest the destiny of others."
Enter Wright (and he's not even the most shocking part of an ad that spins through Cubans, Palestinians, and Hamas): "The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. and his inflammatory sermon have surfaced in an ad attacking Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, but it's not clear how widely it will air," Dan Morain reports in the Los Angeles Times. "Conservative consultants Sal Russo and Joe Wierzbicki of Sacramento and former California Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian teamed up to produce the spot, which asserts, 'Barack Obama seems to have different values from most Americans.' "
Any ACORNs hidden for Wednesday night? "Thousands of suspicious voter registrations collected by the housing-advocacy group known as Acorn have become a rallying point for Republicans, who claim left-leaning activists may be trying to rig votes in the 2008 elections," Even Perez reports in The Wall Street Journal. "Faulty registrations in recent months include those in the names of Mickey Mouse in Florida, Batman in New Mexico and Dallas Cowboys football players in Nevada."
Watch the push: "McCain aides first accused ACORN of misdeeds last week. McCain upped the ante Tuesday when he called for an immediate investigation of what he described as 'voter fraud going on' in battleground states. He also sought to tie the alleged irregularities directly to his Democratic opponent," Bob Drogin and David Savage report in the Los Angeles Times.
"Obama has a responsibility to rein in ACORN," Sarah Palin told Rush Limbaugh Tuesday.
Obama Tuesday called the ACORN matter a "distraction," and said thanks but no thanks: "We've got the best voter registration and turnout and volunteer operation in politics right now and we don't need ACORN's help," Obama said, per ABC's Jake Tapper.
The New York Daily News' Thomas M. DeFrank has McCain's roadmap for a Truman: "1. The Stock Market Recovers . . . 2. Crisis Abroad . . . 3. A Big-Time Obama Goof . . . 4. A Bold McCain Gesture . . . 5. Slacker Generation? . . . 6. A Terrorist Attack."
A casualty of the Obama boom: Christopher Buckley. "William F. Buckley Jr.'s son said yesterday that he had lost his back-page column in National Review, the conservative bible founded by his father," Howard Kurtz reports in The Washington Post.
Says Buckley: "Within hours, poor NR was being swamped with furious mail, 'Cancel my subscription, this is betrayal, Judas, Benedict Arnold.' . . . I thought the decent thing to do would be to offer to resign the column. Well, they accepted it."
Writes National Review editor Rich Lowry: "It's an intense election season and emotions are running high. We continue to have the highest regard for Chris's talent and wit, and extend to him warmest regards and understanding."
Matthew Dowd on McCain's pick of Palin: "[McCain] knows, in his gut, that he put somebody unqualified on the ballot. He knows that in his gut, and when this race is over that is something he will have to live with. . . . He put somebody unqualified on that ballot and he put the country at risk, he knows that."
On the enthusiasm she's sparked: "To me it is like Halloween," Dowd said. "You get energized by eating all that candy at night but then you feel sick the next day."
Bill Kristol fires back at this smarty-pants friends (via Maureen Dowd's column): "With all due respect for my fellow eggheads, they are underestimating the importance of a natural political gift or star quality. It matters a lot."
Playing defense on judges for Obama: Joe Biden. "Seen this ad questioning what kind of people Barack Obama would appoint? Well I chaired the Senate committee that reviews judicial nominees. I know Barack Obama. These ads are ridiculous," Biden says in a new ad.
The New Hampshire Union-Leader endorses (surprise) McCain: "In this time of great uncertainty, America needs an experienced, decisive leader with clear vision and a steady hand to guide us through. That man is Sen. John McCain."
Look for the byline soon: Julie Mason, the lovely and talented Houston Chronicle White House correspondent (and "Beltway Confidential" blogger) is joining The Washington Examiner as White House correspondent. (Check out her greatest-hits collection of photo captions from the Bush presidency."
Still pushing for a debate question on hurricane rebuilding: The *Equity and Inclusion campaign,* this time with a full-page ad in Newsday. http://www.equityandinclusion.org
Remember social issues? NARAL does. Caroline Kennedy is headlining a noon ET "Power of Choice Luncheon" at the Rainbow Room in New York City.
The home of the Pride are proud hosts: Walt Handelsman's Newsday debate sketchbook is worth the click.
I'll be blogging during Wednesday's debate from Hofstra University.
And our ABC NewsNOW coverage, hosted by me and Sam Donaldson, will be available free online, starting at 8 pm ET, at abcnews.com/politics.
The final showdown -- John McCain and Barack Obama meet for the last presidential debate at 9 pm ET at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Sarah Palin spends Wednesday in New Hampshire with three rallies -- Dover at 11 am ET, then Laconia at 2 pm ET, and finally in Salem at 7 pm ET.
Joe Biden is on the second day of his bus tour through Ohio. He spends his Wednesday attending a series of community events -- Athens at 10:30 am ET, Lancaster at 2 pm ET and Newark at 6 pm ET.
Michelle Obama holds a rally in Fort Wayne, Ind., at noon ET. She will attend the final debate with guest Lilibet Hagel, wife of Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
President Bush will participate in a video teleconference with Iraq Provincial Reconstruction team leaders and brigade commanders at 9:45 am ET. He will then meet with business leaders in Grand Rapids, Mich. at 12:45 pm ET, and will hold an afternoon fundraiser for congressional candidates. (Did McCain pull out just in time?)
Also in the news:
"The FBI has reportedly begun its own preliminary investigation into an ABC News report that West Palm Beach Congressman Tim Mahoney (D-FL) hired an alleged mistress to work on his official staff and then paid her $121,000 to keep her from going public and filing suit after she was fired," per ABC's Emma Schwartz, Rhonda Schwartz, and Vic Walter.
The audiotapes made their way into a quick-turnaround ad from the state GOP: "You're fired . . . it means you work at my pleasure," Mahoney says in an excerpt used in the ad. "The only person that matters is guess who? Me."
Adios: "Democratic Party operatives are cutting Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) loose in the wake of allegations of an extra-marital affair that has significantly hurt his reelection prospects," Susan Crabtree reports in The Hill. "Before the controversy erupted, Mahoney's party had already pulled resources from his district and decided against purchasing more television advertisements in the final three-weeks of the campaign. Democrats have no plans to reinvest after Mahoney's comments in the past 24 hours failed to knock down an ABC News report that the Florida Democrat made a $121,000 payment to a former congressional staffer with whom he had an affair and subsequently fired from his campaign."
A Cleveland-area special election, in the race to replace the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, D-Ohio: "Marcia Fudge, the mayor of Warrensville Heights, beat out eight other Democrats in a special primary election Tuesday. With turnout estimated at less than 10 percent, unofficial results showed Fudge had 10,753 votes. Her closest challenger had 2,028 votes," per the AP. "Fudge advances to a Nov. 18 special election, in which she could face independent candidate James Germalic, whose petitions are under review."
"What makes people more nervous? The fact that I am quoting Rush Limbaugh or the fact we could have a president who could have these associations?" -- Virginia state GOP Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick, not really apologizing for saying that Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden "both have friends that bombed the Pentagon."
"It was the destiny of this thing." -- Oliver Stone, on the timing of the release of his new film, "W." (If by destiny, you mean "marketing.")
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