Obama Debate Prep: Style Over Substance for TonightBy Jeff Zeleny
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – As Senator Barack Obama prepared for his final debate with Senator John McCain, he did so sitting down. An adviser, playing the role of Mr. McCain, was directly at his side, pressing and prodding and poking for 90-minute practice sessions.
In preparing for encounter No. 3, style took precedence over facts and debating points.
"It's less about preparing for the substance," said David Axelrod, the campaign's chief strategist, who noted that Mr. Obama has completed two dozen debates in the course of this long presidential race. "The candidates are sitting at a table tonight, sitting in close proximity. It sounds silly, but those are the things you've got to consider as you prepare."
As Mr. Obama flew here from Ohio on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Axelrod spoke to reporters aboard the campaign plane, conceding that Mr. Obama has benefited politically from his performance in the first two debates. But he suggested the third debate could be the most important of all, particularly with the focus solely on domestic issues.
"It's the last chance for folks to see these candidates side by side and take the measure of them," Mr. Axelrod said. "It's going to accelerate the decision-making process for people who are still pondering their choices. As we get around the corner here to the final sprint, I think it's going to be an important one."
Mr. Obama, whose political advantages have expanded since the debating began late last month in Mississippi, is aiming to hold his position in the race. He is not expected to offer any new policy proposals, advisers said, or say anything he hasn't already addressed.
"We're not in the business of reinventing ourselves from debate to debate. That's not what Obama is going to do," Mr. Axelrod said. "He's been very consistent for 20 months. He'll be very consistent tonight."
As for their Republican rival, he added: "McCain 7.0? That may happen."
So what has Mr. Obama learned about Mr. McCain during their two on-stage encounters?
"He learned that he doesn't like to look at him very often," Mr. Axelrod said. "I don't think it's of that much consequence to him. He's paying more attention to the questions to the American people, but obviously it was noted."
So what if Mr. McCain proposes holding another debate before Election Day?"I think we're going to take advantage of this opportunity and then we'll see," Mr. Axelrod said. "At this point, we're in the last couple weeks of the campaign. We've got a schedule. He's got a schedule. At the end of tonight, people have already gotten a sense of the differences between the two of them."
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