Obama, McCain To Sit Down For Final Debate

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain meet Wednesday night for the final presidential debate. With less than three weeks to go before the election, McCain needs to have a strong performance. Polls show Obama leading nationally and in battleground states. McCain and Obama will be seated at a desk with the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS.

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This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne. Tonight on Long Island in New York, John McCain and Barack Obama meet in person in their final presidential debate. Hofstra University is the setting. CBS news anchor Bob Schieffer is the moderator. And the topic is the economy and domestic policy. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, joins us now with a preview. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We have, of course, had three debates already, two of them presidential. How much do you expect this debate to change the dynamics of the campaign, if it changes anything at all?

LIASSON: Well, we'd have to say not very much because the last three haven't changed the dynamic of the race at all. Now it's very hard to do that with a debate, especially when you're behind the way John McCain is right now. What's been happening since these debates began is that Obama's lead has been widening. Nationally, he's now at an eight-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average. That's well outside the margin of error. We've also seen, since the last debate, Obama making large gains in these traditional battleground states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Ohio.

But also you see John McCain battling to hang on to states like North Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, Virginia. When those states are the toss-ups, all formerly red states, you can really see the uphill climb that McCain has. The other thing that we've seen in the polls is that Obama has made gains on which candidate is favored to help the struggling economy. We've also seen Obama's favorables ratings higher than McCain's. Don't forget they were just about the same for most of this campaign. Now it seems like - one theory is, at least - is that the attacks that McCain has been using against Obama not only haven't been working, but they have been backfiring a bit.

MONTAGNE: You know, you mentioned the economy, and it was a large part of both previous presidential debates even though they weren't intended to be all about the economy. What more is there to say?

LIASSON: There is a lot more to say, Renee. First of all, this is a debate about domestic policy and the economy. There have been big, big changes in American capitalism over just the course of the last couple of weeks since these two candidates started debating. The government role in the economy has changed. Taxpayers just bought a big chunk of a lot of American banks. And I think that in the past debates, the candidates have really shied away from taking this on in a comprehensive way. They've kind of gone into default mode, come up with pretty simple answers for what went wrong: McCain saying it was corruption and greed, and Obama saying it was the final verdict on the failed economic policies of the Bush and McCain years.

But they haven't really talked about how their approaches would have to change because of these big changes in the government role. And I think tonight, they will be pressed on that. Don't forget in the past few days, they both have issued new proposals about what they would do, at least in the short term, to stimulate the economy. Obama talking about a 90-day moratorium on home foreclosures, a two-year tax break for businesses that create jobs. And on McCain's side, lowering the tax rate on IRAs and eliminating taxes on unemployment benefit. So I do expect them to talk a lot about that tonight.

MONTAGNE: Mara, there's a new theme that we're hearing from the McCain campaign, warnings about the same party running Congress and the White House. You know, aside from the debate, is that something that resonates with voters?

LIASSON: Well, it might. You know, in the past, when presidents have gone out and campaigned to get the kind of Congress they wanted in a midterm election, it hasn't worked, even though American voters traditionally have shown they like divided government. We've had it for a large part of our history. They tend to like their own representative. This is a little bit different.

I think that what McCain is going to do over the next couple of weeks - it might come up tonight - is talk about whether - ask the question whether voters want Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama, all Democrats, to be running the country. And he will present himself as a kind of a check on the Democratic Congress, which is unpopular even though people clearly express a preference for Democrats instead of Republicans right now. But I do think you're going to hear more about that, and it might be something that resonates.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mara Liasson is covering the final presidential debate tonight. It will be held at Hofstra University on Long Island.

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