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Originally published October 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 15, 2008 at 4:38 PM

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Candidates prepare for final debate tonight

On the eve of the final presidential debate, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have issued a last-minute flurry of proposals meant to show expertise and focus on kitchen-table worries and ailing markets.

NEW YORK —

On the eve of the final presidential debate, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have issued a last-minute flurry of proposals meant to show expertise and focus on kitchen-table worries and ailing markets.

With millions of voters taking a last side-by-side look, the contenders have plenty to hash out — from taxes to foreclosures to staggering federal bailouts — at tonight's debate in Hempstead, N.Y.

At a McCain rally Tuesday in Blue Bell, Pa., an upscale Philadelphia suburb, real-estate investor Joan Levin, 54, said she's "praying" the debate elicits a serious discussion.

The economic crisis has transformed the campaign over the past month. Obama has built leads nationally and in key states as the turmoil has returned the nation's focus to President Bush's unpopular policies. Now, the burden is on McCain to try to reverse his slide during tonight's 90-minute showdown at Hofstra University.

McCain and Obama will answer questions from moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS. The debate is to focus on domestic issues. It will include two-minute answers and then five minutes of discussion.

Analysts expect it will provide more revelations than the previous matches. The format allows more time for follow-ups, particularly compared with the "town hall" debate last week.

Analysts note that it's the candidates — not the format — that determine whether a debate is good or bad. Eric Morris, director of forensics at Missouri State University, is among those who believe that tonight's debate won't be boring because, as he puts it: "John McCain has nothing to lose."

Indeed, McCain's weakness of late in polls and his penchant for risk-taking may assure he will be aggressive in ways that present as much peril to his campaign as hope for resurgence.

Tonight's matchup has taken on a mano-a-mano flavor, with McCain promising supporters that he will whip Obama's "you-know-what" and Obama challenging McCain last week to "say it to my face." He was referring to the McCain campaign's assertions of late that Obama's association with 1960s radical William Ayers calls the Illinois senator's character into question.

In a KMOX interview Tuesday, McCain said Obama's remark "probably ensures" Ayers will come up in the debate. "It's not that I give a damn about some old washed-up terrorist and his wife. ... What I care about and what the American people care about is whether he (Obama) is being truthful with the American people," McCain said.

With the economic crisis foremost in people's minds, polls suggest the McCain campaign's recent angry tone and sharply personal attacks on Obama appear to have backfired and tarnished the Arizona Republican more than his intended target.

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After several weeks in which the McCain campaign unleashed a series of strong political attacks on Obama, trying to tie him to the former radical, among other things, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll found that more voters see McCain as waging a negative campaign than Obama. Six in 10 voters surveyed said McCain had spent more time attacking Obama than explaining what he would do as president; by about the same number, voters said Obama was spending more of his time explaining than attacking.

Overall, the poll found that if the election were held today, 53 percent of those determined to be probable voters said that they would vote for Obama and 39 percent said they would vote for McCain.

Likewise, a new Los Angeles poll shows Obama leading McCain, 50 percent to 41 percent, among likely voters.

McCain has a fine line to walk in tonight's debate, said Mitchell McKinney, a debate expert and communications professor at the University of Missouri. With ground to make up, McCain needs to be convincing. But McKinney believes it will take more than anger for McCain to win over the diminishing number of swing voters.

"In some ways, he has to come out and be that happy warrior, a fighter," McKinney said. "But projecting a mean or nasty image could feed a perception that he's bitter and that this race is all over."

McKinney sees Obama's mission as much the opposite: keeping his cool amid the likely attacks but by no means sounding cocky or talking about how he is planning for a transition.

"He can't take the bait. ... And he must seem presidential and project the image of a leader, someone ready to take over," McKinney said.

Compiled from Dallas Morning News, St. Louis Post Dispatch and The New York Times

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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