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Originally published September 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 26, 2008 at 1:01 AM

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When the debate happens, outcome will be crucial

The primaries were engaging. The conventions were a grand spectacle. And perhaps 65 million Americans will watch tonight as John McCain...

On television

The presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford is to focus on foreign policy. The moderator is Jim Lehrer of PBS.

The debate is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. PDT, last 90 minutes and be broadcast on the four major broadcast networks and cable-news channels.

The primaries were engaging. The conventions were a grand spectacle. And perhaps 65 million Americans will watch tonight as John McCain and Barack Obama step onto the stage for the first of three debates.

Maybe.

The event in Oxford, Miss., remained uncertain Thursday night after McCain and Obama left a White House meeting without a deal on a $700 billion economic-rescue plan.

Democrats blamed McCain for disrupting the effort at compromise. The talks, seemingly fruitful early in the day, culminated in the late-afternoon meeting held by President Bush. Instead of producing a joint statement of success, however, McCain and Obama slipped out of a gathering described as contentious and unproductive.

"What this looked like to me was a rescue plan for John McCain for two hours," said an angry Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who earlier had all but declared the deal done. "To be distracted for two to three hours for political theater doesn't help."

Obama also pointed a finger at his rival, saying on CNN that "when you start injecting presidential politics into delicate negotiations, you can actually inject more problems, rather than less."

Obama spokesman Bill Burton was even more blunt, accusing McCain of turning "a national crisis into an occasion to promote his campaign."

In response, senior McCain adviser Steve Schmidt accused Obama of playing politics, saying the negotiations had been far from resolved and challenging the Democratic nominee to "publish the list of members of Congress who were going to vote for this."

McCain said he is "hopeful" a deal can be reached soon.

"There are a variety of concerns, I think a lot of them have been satisfied," he said. "And I believe and I'm hopeful that we can satisfy all of them and move forward very quickly. They are aware of the urgency."

Obama and McCain both held out hope that they could still meet in Oxford, Miss., for their long-scheduled debate.

"I think he knows that I'm going to be there," Obama said.

But McCain's campaign said no travel decisions had been made. "I understand how important this debate is, and I am hopeful," McCain said.

The independent Commission on Presidential Debates said it is "moving forward" with its plans for the faceoff.

Whenever they debate, there's no doubt the meetings will be critical to who wins the presidency.

Obama now has a modest lead in most national polls, in part because of the financial crisis. Yet, the Polling Institute at Quinnipiac University this week found one in four likely voters in several key states saying the debates were likely to impact their decision.

"No event in a campaign focuses the minds of voters more than these debates," said Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

The 90-minute debate is scheduled to focus on foreign policy and national security and will be televised nationally. Analysts, however, said the event almost certainly will stray into economic issues.

The big question Thursday night: If McCain doesn't show up, how would that affect the rest of the schedule?

The lone vice-presidential debate is next, on Thursday. A second presidential debate, using a town-hall format, is set Oct. 7. The third debate, on Oct. 15, is expected to cover economic and domestic issues.

Arguably, McCain should have an edge in the first debate. A lifetime of service in the Navy and the Senate has given him vast foreign-policy and national-security experience. Polls show the public trusts him over Obama on those subjects by wide margins.

But the public is far more focused on the economy, and voters trust Obama far more on that issue, polls show.

"The expectation going in is that this is McCain's time to show his abilities," said Mitchell McKinney, a 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."

Compiled from McClatchy Newspapers, The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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