The expectations game. Both campaigns engage with it before every debate. But with only hours to go before tonight's sparring between Barack Obama and John McCain on topics of foreign policy, it is the Obama campaign that is the first out with an official statement.
In a memo released to reporters, spokesman Bill Burton says that McCain's time in Washington and his "professed" expertise on foreign policy should make him a natural favorite in this format.
And yet, the campaign also says that McCain's poor performance in the past three days (and the web ad that he prematurely put on the site of the Wall Street Journal, declaring debate victory), means the Republican "desperately needs to win this debate in a big way."
"The centerpiece of John McCain's campaign has been his more than a quarter century of experience in Washington learning about and debating foreign policy," the memo reads. "If he slips up, makes a mistake, or fails to deliver a game-changing performance, it will be a serious blow to his campaign. Given his unsteady performance this week, he desperately needs to win this debate in a big way in order to change the topic and get back to his home turf."
For good measure, Burton includes a handful of newspaper clips under the heading that says: "DEBATES ARE NOT A GOOD FORMAT FOR OBAMA." The list included this hit:
AP: Obama Comes Across As "Lifeless, Aloof, And Windy" During Debates. "For a man known as a powerful speaker, Obama has rarely wowed people in political debates. He can come across as lifeless, aloof and windy." [AP, 9/20/08]
Here is the Obama memo:
Already declaring victory before the debate has even started, in ads running on the Wall Street Journal website, John McCain meets Barack Obama tonight to debate foreign policy - McCain's professed area of expertise.
The centerpiece of John McCain's campaign has been his more than a quarter century of experience in Washington learning about and debating foreign policy. If he slips up, makes a mistake, or fails to deliver a game-changing performance, it will be a serious blow to his campaign. Given his unsteady performance this week, he desperately needs to win this debate in a big way in order to change the topic and get back to his home turf.
For eight years, McCain has marched in lockstep with every single major Bush decision, while Barack Obama opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning and has called for a focus on Afghanistan and al Qaeda. Americans want to know whether John McCain will stop spending $10 billion in Iraq while the Iraqi government sits on a $79 billion surplus and our economy is in turmoil. Will he continue a policy that has taken our eye off al Qaeda and Afghanistan, and let Iran make progress in building a nuclear weapon? Will he continue the cowboy diplomacy and empty bluster that has shredded our alliances and set back our standing in the world? The fact is, John McCain will continue more of these same failed foreign policies. Barack Obama will lead us in a new direction.
On the economy, McCain's words and actions over the course of the past week have illuminated his lack of expertise. He admitted he does not understand the economy -- his erratic, out-of-touch behavior this week, his failure to do anything of substance to move the agreement forward on the bailout, and his commitment to continuing Bush economic policies, demonstrate it. But there are some questions we might see answered tonight after McCain's misadventure to Washington and the phony 'suspension' of his campaign. For example, will McCain finally say where he stands on the unworkable and counterproductive House Republican plan? Will he be willing to buck his own party?
UPDATE: Here is the RNC's response, accusing Obama of playing politics in the midst of an economic crisis. Not sure if that precludes the McCain campaign from releasing a debate memo of its own.
"It says a lot about the candidates' priorities that while John McCain was focused on rescuing the economy, Barack Obama's campaign was drafting a debate memo. Strong leadership does not transparently attempt to lower expectations by circulating clips criticizing yourself. We are confident people are smart enough to see through Obama's silly spin and recognize it as just another blatant example of the old political tricks." - Alex Conant, RNC Spokesman
LATE UPDATE: The McCain campaign does respond, offering a withering criticism of Obama for being, as the AP article noted, "Lifeless, Aloof, And Windy," only on matters of governance and not debating. Write spokesman Michael Goldfarb:
"In a memo that perfectly captures the nastiness and politics first approach of Senator Obama's campaign, Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton distributed a memo this afternoon as part of a last minute attempt to lower expectations for his candidate in tonight's debate. The memo mocks John McCain's efforts to put politics aside in order to achieve a bipartisan solution to the financial crisis now confronting our nation, and questions John McCain's record of bucking his own party and reaching across the aisle in order to bring about badly needed reforms. The Obama campaign also includes in the memo an AP piece that characterizes their candidate's previous debate performances as "lifeless, aloof and windy." In fact, that is a better characterization of Senator Obama's brief record in the United States Senate. He has never once bucked his own party in order to enact major legislation, he has never once taken real action when he had more to gain from speechifying, and he has never once risked his own political life in the service of a cause greater than winning his next election."