A crucial debate, whenever it happens

Now it gets really serious — maybe.

The primaries were engaging. The conventions were a grand spectacle. But if John McCain and Barack Obama step onto the stage this evening as scheduled 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. Even as talks stalled on the bailout Thursday — with neither McCain nor Obama participating — McCain still didn't signal whether he would remain in Washington or fly to Mississippi for the debate.

Obama said he'd be in Mississippi whether McCain shows up or not. And debate sponsors said it would go on as long planned. But no one expects there to be a debate tonight if McCain fails to show up.

Regardless of when they debate, 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.

“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 affect their decision – enough to swing those states either way.

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. It will be moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS and feature both candidates standing at lecterns.

The final two debates will be on Oct. 7 and Oct. 15. The two vice presidential candidates will debate Oct. 2.