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Originally published October 10, 2008 at 9:55 AM | Page modified October 10, 2008 at 9:55 AM

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ON DEADLINE: Myth of last-chance debate dies hard

In the mythology of the last-chance campaign debate, the candidate trying to catch up strides out strong, gets tough with the other guy and delivers a performance that changes the race.

AP Special Correspondent

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. —

In the mythology of the last-chance campaign debate, the candidate trying to catch up strides out strong, gets tough with the other guy and delivers a performance that changes the race.

It's never happened, but myths die hard.

So John McCain is talking tough, again, about his coming encounter with Barack Obama. He said he'd hit hard in their second debate, but about as tough as he got that night in Nashville was when he referred to Obama sharply as "that one." He did so in criticizing Obama's Senate vote for an energy bill advocated by the Republican administration. McCain voted no.

On television, that appeared more awkward than aggressive. There were no particularly incisive or enlightening moments in the 90-minute debate, and the polls indicated that most people thought Obama won the night.

So to the third and last of their debates. With time running out until Election Day, early voting already under way and Obama favored in the national and electoral vote surveys, McCain is promising his supporters that he will "take it to" his rival on Wednesday night.

Those aren't his words; they came from an ardent supporter at a Waukesha, Wis., rally. "I am begging you, sir, begging you to take it to him," the man said. "Yes, I'll do that," McCain replied.

That's easier said than delivered. For one thing, debate attacks can, and do, backfire. In the opening debate, McCain got his worse grades from viewers on his harshest words against the Democrat. For another, to get into Obama's face McCain would have to drastically change the style he displayed in the first two debates. That's risky, as Al Gore demonstrated with the three faces he displayed in his debates against George W. Bush in 2000. In their final debate, Gore stalked across the stage, armed with his microphone, invading Bush's space. Bush looked surprised and at times bemused. Those variations didn't help Gore.

The first two debates were supposed to be on the subjects and in the format that played to McCain's strengths. Foreign policy was the planned subject of the first one, although it was overtaken by the financial crisis. The second was in the town hall format McCain likes, so much that he'd earlier challenged Obama to meet him in 10 of them. Essentially, that would have made town hall sessions the dominant format of the entire campaign, and Obama, who does best at his own rallies, wasn't interested.

This last debate is to deal with domestic policy, and it surely will concentrated on financial and economic issues, which is to Obama's advantage.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for McCain to turn that into a stage for fierce attack tactics. It always has been easier to talk about getting tough with the other guy than to do it when the nominees are face to face and on national television. The angriest attacks generally come at a safe distance, or in negative campaign advertising.

The debate finales seldom have been notable turning points.

That is in large part because the debates tend to reinforce impressions and opinions rather than to change them markedly. The first President Bush probably wouldn't have suffered so severely for glancing at his watch in a 1992 TV debate but for the impression that he was disengaged and out of touch. Bush got one more chance in a third debate, but it didn't help. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot took turns criticizing him, and Clinton held his plurality in the polls and in the election.

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When Michael Dukakis got an ambush question - whether he'd change his view on capital punishment if his wife were raped and murdered - he said no, dryly, he'd still be against the death penalty. That fit the adverse image of the emotionless bureaucrat, which was the way Republicans wanted Dukakis viewed.

John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon debated four times in 1960, but the first in the series is the only one much remembered now. That was the night a haggard Nixon looked terrible on television, to Kennedy's lasting advantage. Their final debate was notable because Kennedy had just advocated U.S. support for Cuban forces in exile who might overthrow Fidel Castro. In the debate, Nixon called the idea dangerous, although he actually supported secret administration planning for such operations. The upshot, after Kennedy became president, was the failed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs.

In 1976, the next campaign in which candidates debated, President Gerald R. Ford made a debilitating mistake in the second debate by claiming there was no Soviet domination of eastern Europe. Jimmy Carter capitalized on the blunder, and Ford couldn't fashion a comeback in their third debate. It was a subdued standoff, to Carter's advantage.

One exchange echoes now - the economy was slumping and the candidates were asked sacrifices they'd ask of Americans to deal with the hard times. Ford said he'd hold down spending and cut taxes. Carter said "the sacrifices would be much less" if he won.

That same question came up in the Obama-McCain debates; neither candidate really answered.

In 1980, there was only one debate, and Carter needed to make it the stage for a comeback against Ronald Reagan. It wasn't. Reagan defused every Carter criticism with a weary "There you go again."

Democrat Walter Mondale needed to go on offense but Ronald Reagan blocked him with a quip, defusing the age issue - he was 73, a year older than McCain is now. He said he wasn't going to make age an issue by exploiting Mondale's youth and inexperience. That ended both the issue and Mondale's chances of overtaking him.

The closing debates in the close contests of 2000 and 2004 were essentially standoffs, no turnaround for either nominee.

That's the pattern McCain will have to reverse if he is to make the final debate a breakout episode in his campaign against Barack Obama.

--

EDITOR'S NOTE - Walter R. Mears has reported on presidential politics for The Associated Press since 1960. He is retired and lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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