John McCain enters tonight's third and final debate at Hofstra University at a huge disadvantage. The electoral map continues to bleed blue as polls move in Barack Obama's direction, with last night's NYT/CBS News poll showing a startling fourteen-point lead for the Democrat among likely voters. According to respondents, McCain's negative personal attacks have backfired, which would seem to hinder his ability to score major points tonight, especially since he's already sort of committed to bringing up William Ayers. Obama, on the other hand, has a solid enough lead that he basically needs to run out the clock without making any catastrophic mistakes. So: McCain must create a game-changing moment without being negative; Obama just has to stand there. Who would you rather be tonight?
• Mike Madden writes that McCain's "promise to bring up Ayers … doesn't bode well for a high-minded discussion of the economy, the stated topic for the final debate." In addition, the format, in which both candidates will be seated together at a table, is one with which McCain has struggled before, and "ought to make harsh attacks even more awkward than in the last two debates." However, if McCain doesn't "swing for the fences, he will have lost what's almost certainly his last, best chance to change the dynamic of the election." [Salon]
• John Dickerson believes that, for McCain, the debate "comes with a degree of difficulty perhaps beyond the capacity of human achievement." The big problem is that while McCain needs to "knock Obama back" in this "last big chance to reach a wide national audience without the media filter," the "format is so regulated and the risk of coming off as a brute is so high" that an effective attack is exceedingly difficult. McCain will also have "to do something to improve his lot with voters who care about the economy." [Slate]
• Christopher Orr contends that McCain's promise to bring up Ayers in the debate is bound to backfire, and violates three debate rules: "Don't fence yourself in before the debate begins," "Don't tell your opponent how you're going to attack him before you do," and "Don't do something just because [your opponent] dares you to." [Plank/New Republic]
• Bill Press is hungry for the moment when McCain tries to use Ayers and Obama "expose[s] McCain as the pure hypocrite he really is." [Hill]
• Mark Halperin says Obama's "preternatural calm" will be McCain's "main obstacle" tonight. In his "last chance to shale up the race" McCain needs to "produce a major memorable moment at the expense of his rival — by forcing an error, exposing a flaw or unattractive trait, or revealing an inconsistency or weakness — which would then be replayed incessantly on the airwaves, rapaciously dissected by the media, and seized upon by the public." But that'll be tough with an opponent who doesn't get rattled. [Time]
• David Corn thinks regardless of whether McCain goes "Atwater," he'll "disappoint — perhaps alienate — one of two crucial blocs of voters." On the one hand, the "Republican party's base wants blood." But on the other hand, going negative will risk "pissing off indie and uncommitted voters." It's possible that in trying to "navigate these shoals," McCain's "head will explode." [CQ Politics]
• Sridhar Pappu goes the other way, calling tonight "Obama’s last, and perhaps toughest, test." In order to ensure he stays above the "presidential threshold," Obama must come up with a "Reagan moment"; proof that he's "a man the American people could feel safe with, a man whose actions wouldn’t send the world into a mass panic." [Washington Independent]
• George Stephanopoulos writes that Obama should be in "'do no harm' mode." He needs to focus on simply avoiding "mistakes that could become the talk of the campaign trail in the last few weeks of the campaign," which means "be reassuring, counter punch when necessary, bur [sic] basically lay out his policy plans." McCain will have the challenge of drawing blood without being too negative. [Political Radar/ABC News]
• Chuck Todd and friends contend that McCain's real task tonight is to "somehow accomplish the following: disqualify Obama without going negative." He'll need help from Obama, but indications from earlier debates are that he won't get any. For Obama, the "obvious" goal is to "get through this debate without a YouTube moment." [First Read/MSNBC]
• Vaughn Ververs wonders if McCain is just "out of debate options." An additional hurdle for him is that "it will take more than a flub or stumble to reverse" the minds of voters who have probably already formed impressions of the candidates. Instead, "it will take a momentous mistake of some sort that cements concerns that are already there." [Horserace/CBS News]
For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.