With the presidential campaign locked in a near dead heat, both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are carefully preparing for their first presidential debate Friday, focusing on foreign policy and national security issues.
Beginning today, Obama will huddle with advisers in Tampa, Fla., for intensive debate preparations. Veteran Washington lawyer Greg Craig has been chosen to role-play McCain.
Craig, one of Obama's few gray-haired advisers, defended former President Clinton during his impeachment proceedings.
On Friday, ABC's Diane Sawyer anchors the first of two hourlong "20/20" specials examining the personal crises, family struggles and defining events that have shaped the candidates. The first hour will air Friday, beginning at 8 p.m. ET in conjunction with ABC News' special coverage of the first presidential debate.
The first of three presidential debates before Election Day will be held at the University of Mississippi and moderated by PBS' Jim Lehrer.
The second presidential debate, hosted in partnership with social networking Web site MySpace, will be a town hall-style debate held in Nashville, Tenn., with moderator Tom Brokaw. Some voters will have the chance to ask questions.
The third presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., will be moderated by CBS' Bob Schieffer and focus on domestic and economic policy.
Friday's debate is expected to be the most watched of all the debates this year, and with interest in this election high, it could gain more viewers than the 62.4 million people who tuned into President Bush's debate with Sen. John Kerry in 2004.
In an effort to raise the stakes for McCain this week, the Obama campaign has argued that the Arizona senator holds the advantage when it comes to foreign affairs and that he needs a knockout to win.
"John McCain has boasted throughout the campaign about his decades of Washington foreign policy experience and what an advantage that will be for him," Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro told ABCNews.com. "This debate offers him major home court advantage and anything short of a game-changing event will be a key missed opportunity for him."
Holding McCain's game plan close to its chest, the McCain campaign didn't respond to inquiries from ABCNews.com about the debates.
Presidential historians argue that this first debate will be a key test for Obama. The Illinois senator is widely perceived to hold an advantage on the economic and domestic issues that will likely dominate the next two debates on Oct. 7 and Oct. 15.
"As we saw last week Obama has a clear advantage on the economy issues, so if he can diffuse the national security issue, which has been Sen. McCain's strong suit, then I think going into the home stretch he probably establishes a clear if small advantage overall," presidential historian Richard Norton Smith told ABCNews.com.
"For McCain it's an opportunity after a bad week and with the economic issues trending against him to get back into the game and to eliminate the gap that exists right now in the polls," Smith said.
Debate scholars who have studied both candidates' previous debate performances argue both candidates have weaknesses going into the debate, exposed by multiple primary debates.