CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama planned to head to Florida this week for three days of preparation for the first debate of the general election, a matchup that could reshape a tight White House race.
Aides say the debate, scheduled for Friday at the University of Mississippi and focused on foreign policy, will give Sen. Obama a chance to demonstrate proficiency in an area where polls have shown voters give the edge to Sen. John McCain, the Republican challenger and a 26-year Washington veteran who touts his ties to leaders around the world.
If Obama can hold his own on foreign policy, it could ease those worries, aides said Sunday as they tried to lower expectations for the first-term Illinois senator, a powerful speaker but an uneven performer in multiple debates during the Democratic primaries.
Instead, senior Obama adviser Robert Gibbs said it is McCain who needs to meet expectations.
"John McCain has boasted throughout the campaign about his decades of Washington foreign policy experience and what an advantage that would be for him," Gibbs said. "This debate offers him major home-court advantage and anything short of a game-changing event will be a key missed opportunity for him."
While Obama is cloistered in Tampa, Fla., veteran Washington lawyer Greg Craig will play the role of McCain in the debate preparations. Craig was a member of President Clinton's defense team during the impeachment proceedings. In 2004, he was a stand-in for President Bush when Democratic nominee John Kerry prepared for his debates. Craig also has advised both Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on foreign policy.
The bulk of Obama's time in Florida will be devoted to the debates, but he's also likely to hold some campaign events in the area.
Polls show a tight race in Florida. McCain won the state during the GOP primaries but Obama didn't compete there because of Democratic Party sanctions against Florida because it held its nominating contest too early in the season.
Obama and McCain are scheduled to debate three times between Friday and Oct. 15, sandwiched around one matchup between their running mates, Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
But the opening presidential debate traditionally sets the tone for voters and it's often difficult for a candidate to overcome a poor performance. This debate also comes as the financial markets remain turbulent and the campaign rhetoric has shifted from foreign issues, to domestic and economic concerns.
Obama was holding a rally Sunday in Charlotte, N.C., a Republican-leaning state he hopes win on Nov. 4. He was returning to Chicago for fundraising and a campaign swing through Wisconsin, a Democratic-leaning state he needs to win.
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