OXFORD, Miss. — Now it gets really serious — maybe. The primaries were engaging. The conventions were a grand spectacle. But when John McCain and Barack Obama step onto the stage Friday evening for the first of three debates, perhaps 65 million Americans will be watching and the presidency will hang in the balance.
McCain on Wednesday called to postpone the debate so that he and Obama could go to Washington to help work on a proposed bailout of the nation's financial system. On Friday, even without an agreement, McCain relented and headed to Mississippi, as did Obama, who'd always said he'd be at the debate whether McCain showed or not.
There's no doubt the face-offs will be critical to who wins the presidency.
With the contest close and an economic crisis coming atop two wars to underscore the high stakes, the debates could prove as pivotal as they were in 1960, when a cool John F. Kennedy bested Richard Nixon and took the election, or in 1980, when an affable Ronald Reagan reassured nervous voters and turned the tide strongly against Jimmy Carter.
Never miss a local story.
"The debates are crucial," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Polling Institute at Quinnipiac University.
Underscoring the point, Quinnipiac this week found one in four likely voters in several key battleground states saying that the debates were likely to impact their decision — enough to swing any of those states either way.
Aware of the huge potential to gain or lose ground — even to win or lose the election — Obama broke off campaigning and retreated this week to Florida to prepare uninterrupted for the debate.
McCain maintained his travel schedule around the country but reserved more private time as the debate neared and was prepping for the showdown between rallies.
The 90-minute debate at the University of Mississippi will focus on foreign policy and national security and will be televised nationally starting at 9 p.m. EDT Friday. It will be moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS and feature both candidates standing at lecterns.
A second debate on Oct. 7 will use a town-hall format and feature questions on any topic from the audience. The third debate on Oct. 15 will cover economic and domestic issues.
The two vice presidential candidates -- Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden -- will debate on Oct. 2.
The debates start as Obama has gained ground in many recent polls, both nationally and in some battleground states.
Obama leads nationally by an average of 3.2 percentage points, according to the Website www.realclearpolitics.com. Two weeks ago, McCain led.
"We've gone through a momentum swing in the past week," said Brown. "That makes the debates especially critical to Senator McCain. No matter whose polls you believe, he's lost the momentum. ... McCain needs to change the momentum."
McCain's effort to thrust himself into the spotlight of negotiations for the financial-system bailout may have been a bid to change the campaign's momentum, at least in part. Whether it worked may depend upon how events play out over coming days.
Arguably, McCain should have an advantage in the first debate as it focuses on foreign policy and national security. A lifetime of service in the Navy and the Senate has given him vast experience, and, as a new Ipsos-/McClatchy poll this week showed, the public trusts him over Obama on those subjects by wide margins.
But the public is far more focused on the economy right now — a subject likely to find its way into this debate as vital to national security. And voters trust Obama far more than McCain on the economy, the Ipsos/McClatchy poll found.
Ultimately, however, debates are judged as much on style as substance, and often on how candidates do compared to expectations.
On style, candidates want to underscore their core message.
Watch for Obama to stress how much he'd change direction from the Bush administration. He'll also strive to assure voters that he's up to the job, to answer what Hillary Clinton called the test of who should answer a crisis call at 3 a.m.
Watch for McCain to stress his experience — in a forum on faith in August he repeatedly used stories about his trials as a prisoner of war — and strong, decisive leadership.
They'll want to avoid visual gaffes, such as the first President Bush looking at his wristwatch and appearing impatient during a town-hall debate in 1992, or Al Gore audibly sighing whenever George W. Bush spoke during a 2000 debate, or walking over close beside Bush during a town-hall debate and drawing a putdown glance from Bush.
As for the expectations game, it's unclear who has the higher bar to clear.
McCain pushed to reverse the order of the debates so the first one would focus on foreign policy, hoping to play to his strength.
"The expectation going in is that this is McCain's time to show his abilities," said Mitchell McKinney, an associate professor of communication and scholar of presidential debates at the University of Missouri.
"That could play into Obama's favor. If Obama can develop coherent answers that seem to be on par, he may come out winning some of the people with lingering questions about him. ... The expectations game for McCain is set higher. He better hit it out of the park."
Doubtless both candidates will try to do just that — if McCain shows up.
ON THE WEB:
For more on the Ipsos/McClatchy poll, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/327/story/52984.html
For more on the Quinnipiac poll, http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x4141.xml?ReleaseID=1217
For more on the NPR poll, http://www.gqrr.com/index.php?ID=2247
To see a copy of , the 2004 debate rules.
For more from the Commission on Presidential Debates, http://www.debates.org/
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY: