When Senators Barack Obama and John McCain meet Friday in Oxford, Miss., for the first of their three scheduled debates, the TV and radio audience is likely to set a record for such an event. Nearly 40 million Americans watched some, or all, of each political convention and there is no reason for diminished interest in these debates. In fact, the Oct. 2 exchange between vice presidential nominees Sarah Palin and Joe Biden might outdraw McCain and Obama.
The Obama camp is treating Friday like a boxing match. Obama and his advisers have set up a "debate camp" in the Tampa Bay area to sharpen his skills. McCain has not said whether he has a similar training regime, but in a telephone interview Sunday, McCain told me he sees himself as the "underdog" in the face of what he regards as Obama's "extremely talented" speaking and debating skills. McCain added, "I do not have his eloquence, but I certainly believe I have more substance."
McCain's challenge is to expose Obama as naive in his approach to the evils that confront us without appearing condescending. America very much likes the idea of a person of color becoming president, if for no other reason than to serve as partial propitiation for our individual and collective sins against blacks. McCain's job is to project a view that he, too, favors the idea of a black president, just not Obama.
Obama negotiators persuaded the debate commission to choose foreign policy as the first debate topic; apparently thinking it could hang the unpopular President Bush and the Iraq War around McCain's neck. McCain negotiators agreed to the topic switch.
McCain must sell the idea that this war is not limited to a single state, or even two states, but is worldwide, ideological, religious, viral and dangerous. Proponents of radical Islam cannot be negotiated with because there is nothing we have that they want, except our heads. McCain should pound Obama on his immature promise to sit down with the world's dictators and talk to them. Even Hillary Clinton properly ridiculed that notion during the primaries. McCain could sound bite Obama to political death just on Clinton's critique's of him, though that can cut both ways, as much was said against McCain by his Republican challengers.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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