What’s At Stake For Obama And McCain In Debate Over Foreign Policy, National Security?

The economic crisis looms over first faceoff between the presidential candidates.

Let’s get ready to … debate the nuances of American foreign policy as the economy teeters on the brink of disaster!

Republican Senator John McCain decided Friday morning (September 26) to reverse his earlier request to postpone the first presidential debate with Democratic Senator Barack Obama in order to focus on the current financial crisis . But the dark economic cloud is still looming over the faceoff and will almost surely color whatever issues the two men discuss in Friday’s 90-minute debate, which airs live at 9 p.m. ET from the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Though the agreed-upon main topics will be foreign policy and national security, the debate will likely hit on the one issue on most American’s minds these days — the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector. McCain’s call to delay the debate appears to have fallen on deaf ears, and a number of leading Congressional Democrats have faulted the Arizona senator for possibly bogging down the intense negotiations on the bailout plan, while offering little input of substance.

“The insertion of presidential politics has not been helpful. It has been harmful,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, pointing out that all McCain has done is, “stand in front of the cameras. We still don’t know where he stands on the issue.”

So, after an exhausting, nearly two-year buildup, the first face-to-face meeting between these rivals for the White House promises to bring real drama, and perhaps some answers about their readiness to lead the country.

According to a recent New York Times story, Obama successfully lobbied to flip the debate topics so that foreign policy and national security would come first, while economic and other domestic issues would be discussed in the final meeting. Even before the bank meltdown, Obama’s team surmised that the key issue in this election would be the economy — and debating that last could give Obama the chance to hit voters with his argument that McCain would continue the failed economic policies of the Bush administration right before they go to the polls.

That strategy suggests a desire by the Obama camp to quickly establish his credentials on foreign policy and appear strong on those issues against McCain, who has consistently gotten higher marks in polls as a potential commander in chief. The first debate is typically the most-watched and given the drama over whether or not it would happen, it’s likely even more people than usual will check out tonight’s showdown.

McCain’s aides were also pushing for the first debate to cover foreign policy, allowing him to benefit from his strong history on national-security issues. But with McCain suddenly behind in the polls — by some accounts between six and nine points — and even some Republicans decrying his campaign suspension, tonight’s battle could be a watershed moment in this historic presidential race.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake for each candidate in this debate.

For Obama

Strengths: Obama has frequently expressed a desire to rise above partisan bickering, but after concerns that he was not fighting back hard enough against some of McCain’s broadsides earlier this summer, he has shown that he can give as good as he gets when pushed against the wall. If he can stand toe-to-toe with McCain on the Arizona senator’s pet issue, Obama can neutralize one of McCain’s strongest talking points and diffuse some of the concerns over his lack of experience on the world stage. He got a good start earlier this week, when he answered McCain’s call to postpone the debate by saying that a president must often deal with more than one thing at a time. That line is sure to pop up again Friday night. If, as expected, the debate turns at points to the economy, Obama is likely to use the current crisis an example of the now-coming-to-roost failures of the Bush policies, which the Illinois senator has said would continue under a McCain administration. Obama has reportedly been doing vigorous debate prep for most of this week in Florida, so he should be well prepared for the face off.

Weaknesses: He’s playing ball in McCain’s court, and if he appears ill-informed on important world issues — or makes a comment that is easily mocked, such as his assertion earlier this year that he would be willing to talk to the leaders of rogue states unconditionally — it could put a dent in his desire to appear presidential. McCain is likely to fault Obama for not agreeing to suspend his campaign while the financial bailout bill is being hammered out in Washington. McCain will also likely reiterate his assertion that he was right to support the surge in Iraq, which Obama opposed.

What he needs to do: Obama has a well-established reputation as an excellent orator, but in the Democratic primary debates he showed that he can sometimes come across as a bit flat and unemotional. Because the debate format features a two-minute back-and-forth on each topic, followed by a five-minute open debate, Obama needs to show that he is quick on his feet and can speak in terms that the average American can understand. In the primary debates, he sometimes seemed exasperated and put-off by more hard-hitting personal questions, reactions he will need to hide if he is to counter McCain’s more self-deprecating charm. He needs to show a command of foreign policy and offer a clear vision for troop withdrawals from Iraq, as well as an understanding of how he will handle rogue states and emerging nuclear powers.

What you can expect to see: Obama hitting McCain on his support of President Bush’s execution of the war in Iraq and refusal to set a timetable for the withdrawal of troops from the region.

For McCain

Strengths: Though his preferred format is the more intimate, unscripted “town hall” style meeting, McCain is most comfortable when not reading from a TelePrompTer, so the off-the-cuff debate format should suit him. Foreign policy is McCain’s sweet spot, and if even half the 40 million Americans who watched Obama’s and Sarah Palin’s convention speeches tune in, it could put him in a positive light for a major audience that might include the undecided and independent voters he needs to win. He’s likely to point to his decision to suspend his campaign as proof that he’s a maverick whose duty to country comes before his party allegiances, a talking point McCain has often repeated on the stump. With his service in Vietnam, extensive overseas trips as a senator and his support of the surge in Iraq — which some have credited with reducing violence in that country — McCain can point to a long history of national-security and foreign-policy credentials during the debate.

Weaknesses: The man once known as the self-deprecating captain of the “Straight Talk Express” has drawn fire as of late for appearing too scripted and rigidly “on topic,” as well as for releasing misleading campaign ads. If he relies on too many carefully constructed attack lines that turn out to be based on erroneous or incomplete information, it could hurt his credibility. When faced with a topic he’s not familiar with, McCain can sometimes appear wooden and confused. Obama will surely fault McCain for not being able to campaign and deal with the crisis in Washington at the same time, especially in light of word that McCain offered few comments during a White House meeting with President Bush on Thursday. He reportedly left the Capital before any headway was made on the bailout package, despite a pledge to stay until a deal was worked out. Between suspending his campaign and flying to Washington, McCain has done considerably less debate prep than Obama, though his camp said that his decades of debating colleagues in Congress have left him well prepared for Obama. 

What he needs to do: Although he’s mostly ditched his sometimes anger-tinged responses to hard questions, McCain could definitely score points if he sticks to the issue-oriented zingers he hit former Republican rival Mitt Romney with during the primary debates. McCain has shown humor and quick-wittedness during debates, a quality he could employ to make Obama appear professorial and dry. McCain has to offer a clear vision of how he’s going to extricate the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan and restore the bruised American image on the international front. He also needs to explain his reversal on attending the debate.

What you can expect to see: Attacks on Obama’s push for a drawdown of troops from Iraq; questions about Obama’s lack of foreign-policy experience and infrequent trips to Iraq and Afghanistan; and, more than likely, the rehashing of the quote about Obama’s openness to sitting down with leaders of rogue states. McCain frequently uses his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam as an example of his intimate experience with the horrors of combat and his desire to avoid confrontations when possible.

Check back Friday night for our scorecard of how the candidates did in the debate.

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