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The High Stakes of the Third Presidential Debate

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of


The consensus is that the second presidential debate was boring. Pundits pronounced John McCain the winner on substance and Barack Obama the winner on style. Since then, Obama has edged ahead of McCain in the polls making for a very high-stakes 3rd presidential debate.  By being ahead in the polls and already the presumptive winner, Senator Obama can coast through this week’s debate on substance (as he has the two previous debates) and rely on his “presidential” image to carry him through. Obama’s only concern during this debate will be to avoid making a major gaffe (which is highly unlikely this late in the campaign).

Senator McCain, though, has to win solidly on both substance and image if he is to have a chance at reversing the current trends to win the presidency. Pundits agree that if McCain is not a solid winner on Wednesday night, Obama’s momentum will increase and he will easily win the election –– probably by a landslide.

The stakes could not be higher for Senator McCain.

In this week’s final debate, John McCain needs to be focused, concise and pointed.  To be blunt, Senator McCain needs to come out of the debate as the acknowledged winner to make a difference in the end run of this presidential race.  If the debate on Wednesday night is boring or simply a draw, Senator McCain will almost certainly lose the election. The debate must fundamentally change the dynamics of the campaign and be an election game changer. 

Over the weekend, Senator McCain acknowledged the worries produced by the financial crisis and the fact that the way the crisis is handled will affect the nation’s future.  He asked, “Will we continue to lead the world's economies, or will we be overtaken? Will the world become safer or more dangerous? Will our military remain the strongest in the world? Will our children and grandchildren's future be brighter than ours?”

Those are the questions worrying American voters in the days preceding the third and final presidential debate on Wednesday, October 15th at Hofstra University, moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News.

Here are the three things that should be top priority for Senator McCain in that debate if he wants to change the direction that the election seems currently headed.

(1)   Senator McCain must stress the importance of trustworthiness in presidential leaders. Numerous studies have shown that once inside the voting booth, voters pull the lever for the candidate that they trust.  Regrettably, he must also raise questions about all the unknowns related to his opponent –– his associations with radical domestic terrorists and his far-left voting record. In these dangerous times, Senator McCain must raise questions about having someone in the White House whose personal life and associations cause worry and produce doubts. With his opponent’s values and beliefs appearing to be far outside the mainstream ––even radical and anti-American –– Senator McCain needs to convey trustworthiness.

(2)   Senator McCain must identify with the pain that average Americans are experiencing because of the financial crisis.  He must clearly establish that tax-and-spend plans will turn the financial crisis into a national catastrophe. He has to argue that only strong, experienced leadership, a steady hand at the helm of the Ship of State and conservative policies will bring the nation through this crisis.

(3)   Senator McCain must emphasize the importance of mainstream values and beliefs.  He must argue that this is not the time to elect extremist, liberal candidates to the highest office of the land. He should ask if Americans want to entrust the presidency to far left ideologues –– especially during this dangerous era of financial crisis and international instability. Clearly, holding positions on social issues that are far outside the mainstream –– endorsing partial-birth abortion and opposing parental notification when an adolescent seeks an abortion –– are legitimate concerns that should be raised.  Yet, these are issues that have received little attention throughout the campaign. If these critical concerns are not raised during the final presidential debate, it will be too late to make them a central part of the November election.

Numerous conservative analysts are concerned that this election could mean a dramatic turn toward policies that would profoundly alter American democracy and bring in an era of radical socialism. Some of those analysts have wondered if Americans fully understand the implications of radical socialism’s impact on the nation. Many analysts think that the final presidential debate this week is the last chance for stopping that outcome. 

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