Debate On: McCain Headed To Mississippi

John McCain says he will participate in Friday night's presidential debate in Oxford, Miss., setting up a timely face-off with Barack Obama. The debates could play a key role in determining the winner in November.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

That explainer from slate.com's Juliet Lapidos. And NPR political editor Ken Rudin is with us. Ken, welcome back. The subject, this presidential debate is on, it's off. It's now on.

KEN RUDIN: What a surprise.

CHADWICK: Yet, does it make any kind of sense to you?

RUDIN: Well, it does. I think John McCain obviously from the beginning likes to shake things up. We saw that with the Sarah Palin pick the day after the Democratic convention ended. And we saw that with the poll showing that economic uncertainty helping giving Barack Obama boost in the polls. Perhaps that John McCain thought he'd shake it up by announcing that he would suspend his campaign, delay the debates because of this financial crisis.

CHADWICK: So, did something happen politically in the last 24 hours to move Senator McCain back to Oxford, Mississippi or polls suddenly showing something?

RUDIN: Well, the feeling was always that he was going to have to show - he was of course hoping from a signal from either from the House Republicans or President Bush saying that negotiations were going well. But obviously, the Democrats really didn't like McCain's involvement on this. They said he was playing - he was posturing, playing presidential politics.

I don't know why anybody thinkS that a presidential candidate would be playing presidential politics. But his feeling - McCain's feeling is that he's talked to enough House Republicans who probably liked the fact that McCain got involved, felt that there was some possible - if not a framework, some advancement towards a goal, towards a solution and we shall allow him to go down to Oxford.

CHADWICK: So, what do you expect to see there tonight?

RUDIN: Well, you know ostensibly, the subject is foreign policy, national security. But you know that - with this on everybody's mind and certainly the voters' minds, with less than six weeks to go, the questions will be about the bailout. I suspect though that - I'm not convinced that neither McCain nor Obama really know exactly what to do with it. And hopefully they won't play the blame game, which is so much of what's going on in Washington right now.

CHADWICK: Well, let me ask you, how important does this debate seem now at this moment. I mean, maybe it's just simply blown away by the financial story.

RUDIN: Oh no. I think the debate is a crucial - the presidential race, even if you look at state by state. The key battleground states going in to November - Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, all those states, very, very close. We saw in 1980 a very close race between Carter and Reagan. Once Reagan did really well on that debate, it boosted him and gave him a landslide victory. People are - even though there's three debate plus a vice presidential debate, people are expecting that the presidential race will be won or loss in these debates.

CHADWICK: I saw CNN running a poll of expectations a little earlier today. People thinking that Senator Obama might do much better than Senator McCain in these debates. So, how will you know who's won?

RUDIN: Well, because I will tell you, you'll hear me on NPR. No. But I think the real reason is look, a lot of people thought that Al Gore would wipe the floor with George W. Bush in 2000 and then somehow the media focused on Al Gore's sighs. Not a size, but sighs. His audible sighs during it. So, it's very interesting how we decide to focus on what's important and what's not important, which is unfortunate many times. But I think, it won't be after one debate you'll have three debates and then everybody will sit back and decide what happens.

CHADWICK: Ken, I'll be guided by your wisdom tonight. NPR political editor, Ken Rudin. Thanks, Ken.

RUDIN: Thanks, Alex.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And stay with us on Day to Day from NPR News.

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