ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos reports: Going into tonight’s third and final presidential debate Barack Obama leads John McCain 53 to 39 percent in support nationally, according to the latest CBS News/New York Times poll.
Among independent voters — a crucial voting group in this election — Obama now leads McCain by 18 points, according to the CBS/Times poll.
Watch the final 2008 presidential debate LIVE on ABC at 9:00 p.m. ET tonight.
Obama is in "do no harm" mode going into tonight’s debate at Hofstra University.
You never want to coast in a debate. But the Democratic candidate’s big challenge tonight is just to avoid mistakes that could become the talk of the campaign trail in the last few weeks of the campaign.
Obama has to do what he’s done in the last two debates: be reassuring, counter punch when necessary, bur basically lay out his policy plans.
McCain has a much different challenge. He does have to draw some blood in the debate but if he goes too negative he will reinforce the perceptions that have been built up over the last couple of weeks that he is he candidate on the attack.
A majority of Americans believe McCain is mainly attacking his opponent 59 percent versus only 26 percent who say that about Obama, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.
The McCain campaign is looking for something dramatic he can do to pull this out. Could McCain pledge to serve only one term? Could he challenge Obama to more debates? Could he announce a bi-partisan cabinet? Those are all conceivable long balls but there is not a whole lot he can do at this point to change the race dynamic with only one debate left.
McCain has pledged to bring up Obama’s connection to 1960′s radical William Ayers. But for this to work for McCain, he’s going to have to put it into a much broader context.
The McCain campaign has been arguing Ayers is part of a pattern where Obama hasn’t been truthful.
There is a risk for McCain, however, in talking about something like this when people are so focused on the economy and what the candidates are going to do for the economy.
The McCain campaign has been reeling of late. McCain’s brother, Joe McCain, sent an e-mail message to the campaign that read in part, "Let John McCain be John McCain. Make ads that show John not as crank and curmudgeon but as a great leader for his time."
When things go wrong, people start jumping ship. McCain’s campaign has also been attacked by many conservatives, including conservative columnist and "This Week" contributor George Will.
Former Bush strategist and ABC News contributor Matthew Dowd recently said of McCain: "He put somebody unqualified on that ballot and he put the country at risk, he knows that."
A renewed focus on national security could help McCain, but it’s important to remember how much of this is out of McCain’s control.
The Republican presidential candidate is up against a wall. But he would be having a very tough time even if he were running a perfect campaign: 90 percent of the country thinks the nation is going in the wrong direction, the economy is souring, and President George W. Bush has record-low approval ratings.
The final, and perhaps fatal, obstacle for McCain has been money.
Unlike McCain, Obama opted out of public financing and has been out raising McCain and outspending him, sometimes by two to one, or three to one in many battleground states.
Obama has been pouring money into his ground operation and television advertising in the final weeks of the campaign.
In the battleground state of Virginia last week alone, Obama spent about $4 million and McCain spent less than $500,000.
Obama will no doubt have enough money to keep going.
Sources say Obama raised about $100 million in September, his best fundraising month ever.