The first important thing to remember about John McCain and Barack Obama is that tonight will be the first time either has debated a truly credible opponent from another party. Barack Obama won his 2004 Senate race by slapping around Alan Keyes, who insisted on answering every policy question by screaming "Jesus! Jesus!" into the microphone. McCain has only sweated in one election, the 1992 Senate race that followed the Keating Five scandal, and in the end he trounced Democrat Claire Sargent by 25 points.
The second thing to remember is that moderator Jim Lehrer is unlikely to ask the sort of scandalous questions that have, in the past, tripped up Obama and turned him into a one-man chorus of "Uhms," "You Knows," and "Looks." Here, for example, is how Jim Lehrer opened up the 2004 Bush-Kerry debates, which came after a month of the Swift Boat and CBS News scandals.
Senator Kerry… do you believe you could do a better job than President Bush in preventing another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States?
Mr. President… do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?
Senator Kerry: "Colossal misjudgments." What colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?
Mr. President… what about Senator Kerry's point, the comparison he drew between the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein?
Debates were not always like this. The election this most resembles, between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis (GOP going for third term, Democrat with patriotism and "regular guy" issues), gave us some of the stupidest debates of all time. Jim Lehrer opened the first debate thusly:
The polls say the number one domestic issue to a majority of voters is drugs. What is there about these times that drives or draws so many Americans to use drugs?
And the next ten minutes were about why Americans got high all the time. Peter Jennings followed Lehrer at the plate, leading to this exchange.
JENNINGS: Governor, one theme that keeps coming up about the way you govern—you've both mentioned leadership tonight, so I'd like to stay with that for a second. The theme that keeps coming up about the way you govern is passionless, technocratic –
JENNINGS: Passionless, technocratic, the smartest clerk in the world.
The backlash to the 1988 debates, borne out in that year's historically low turnout (beaten only by the 1996 Clinton-Dole-Perot humdinger), shamed the networks into staying away from jackknifed questions like that. If Lehrer ever asks Obama, say, about Jeremiah Wright, it would be a break with 16 years of tradition. This probably benefits Obama, but he's in just as much danger of going windy and pointless when he gets a policy question. McCain can handle any question adequately, even if his energy level is notably down from when he boiled over at George W. Bush in 2000.
The third thing to remember is what a weaker position McCain is in right now compared to George W. Bush four years ago. Here's an electoral map (courtesy of these guys) from the day of the first Bush-Kerry debate.
Kerry was on the verge of being Dukakis: Losing Maine, fighting for Maryland, deep down in Wisconsin. Now, here's today's map.
If the election were held today, given the Democratic surge in voter registrations and the panic-driven edge for Obama on economic issues, the man from Honolulu, Illinois would win. But it's easy to imagine McCain drubbing him and turning the election around.
Consider this a weekly political thread, and amuse yourself with Time magazine's collections of ten debate moments you've probably already seen, if not for a while.