Running short on time, John McCain has the most riding on the second presidential debate, though Barack Obama will be out of his scripted comfort zone in the town hall-style confrontation. It could be ugly if Monday's tussling is any indication.
Tonight's debate comes exactly four weeks before Election Day with a lot going on both inside and outside the campaign: Polling shows Obama approaching the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win, Wall Street is tumbling, and both candidates are escalating character attacks.
Their target audience: the roughly 10 percent of the electorate who are undecided and another quarter who say they might change their minds before Nov. 4.
The debate, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., is supposed to be divided equally between the economy and foreign policy, but economic questions may well dominate.
The candidates hunkered down with top aides over the weekend to prepare, McCain at his compound near Sedona, Ariz., Obama in Asheville.
In the 90-minute debate, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw will facilitate questions from the audience as tens of millions of viewers tune in.
“Generally, the stakes in this are higher for McCain,” said Phil Musser, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. “It's probably one of the last and most important opportunities for him to lay out an economic vision that resonates with middle America in a format that lends itself to doing just that.”
But Republicans and Democrats alike say even a strong McCain performance may not be enough.
“McCain can win the debate, but the trajectory of this election would not be fundamentally altered unless Obama also made a pretty dramatic and serious mistake,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist in Vice President Al Gore's 2000 campaign.
An Associated Press analysis based on polling, advertising and interviews with strategists on both sides indicated Obama has 21 states with 264 votes in his column or leaning his way, including Iowa and New Mexico. President Bush won both four years ago. Also tilting toward Obama: Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all states where Democrat John Kerry won in 2004 and where McCain is competing hard.
That leaves McCain with 23 states with 185 votes in his column or leaning toward him, including three longtime Republican-held states that Obama is trying to swipe: Indiana, Missouri, and Montana.
Just six states , with 89 votes, still appear to be toss-ups – Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia – and all are states Bush secured four years ago, underscoring McCain's challenge.