Obama Prepares for Debate That May Not Happen

Ensconced this week in his hotel near Tampa, Fla., Sen. Barack Obama has spent his evenings doing something he never attempted through more than 20 debates during primary season: running full dress rehearsals.

Holding his test runs at 9 p.m., the time of night when the presidential debates are scheduled, Obama has faced off against one of his most trusted advisers, who is playing the role of Sen. John McCain. Greg Craig, the powerhouse Washington lawyer who helped run the defense in the impeachment case against President Clinton and served as a top State Department adviser, has boned up on McCain's best lines in preparation for Friday's debate. According to Obama aides involved in the debate prep, Craig has proved an effective opponent in the mock sessions, while steering clear of mimicking McCain's mannerisms.

Craig has some history as a debate foil; he played the role of President Bush during Sen. John Kerry's mock sessions four years ago. Kerry entered the debates 8 points down in the Gallup poll in late September. The same poll had Kerry up by 2 after the second showdown—only to drop back to 8 points down again after the postdebate glow faded. Those Bush-Kerry verbal jousts were decided in part by body language, as the incumbent president palpably demonstrated his frustration.

Of course, it is still unclear whether the contest Obama is gearing up for will actually come off on schedule—given the uncertain fate of the financial bailout package now under debate on Capitol Hill, and the strategic maneuvering of his Republican rival. Obama's campaign and the University of Mississippi insist that the show will go on—whether or not McCain turns up. Late Thursday, McCain said: "I believe that it's very possible that we can get an agreement in time for me to fly to Mississippi. I understand how important this debate is,and I'm very hopeful. But I also have to put the country first." (Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told NEWSWEEK Friday morning that "there will not be a debate" if McCain does not show up, saying Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission rules would prohibit a one-sided debate.)

Whatever happens, both sides have set about the traditional pre-game strategy of lowering expectations. The McCain campaign insists that Obama is a seasoned debater and world-class orator. The Obama campaign says foreign policy—he main subject of the first debate—is McCain's strongest point.

But Obama's aides go a step further, arguing that their candidate is a hopeless debater—a rare (and tactical) moment of talking down a presidential contender. "Many of us have made the joke that sometimes it takes him 60 seconds for him to clear his throat," Robert Gibbs, Obama's senior adviser, told reporters in Washington on Thursday. "There's no doubt that the way in which a normal primary and general election debate is structured is not his strong suit."

When reporters started joking about bringing out the violins, Gibbs insisted that the media agreed with his poor judgment of his own candidate. "I will e-mail you individually all your clips from the previous 22 primary debates," he said. "It's a rare thing where I agree with all my friends in the press corps. He tends to get a question, describe the problem, tell a story, give some solutions. You pray to God that isn't 45 seconds more than you've been allotted to speak." Of course after the showdown is held, expect the same triumphant pronouncements about Obama's consummate skills and ability to expose his opponent's weaknesses that the postdebate spin rooms during the primaries.

The uncertainty over McCain's plans isn't the only variable in the equation. Jim Lehrer of PBS, the debate moderator, has told both campaigns that the financial crisis will be part of the questioning, which was originally meant to focus solely on foreign policy. That suits both candidates, who have been cramming on the subject in between calls to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and investors like Warren Buffett.

For their part, Obama's aides say they'll be ready—regardless of whether the Republican nominee decides to take part in the proceedings. "He's practicing his part in this," says Gibbs. "So we're prepared to take questions from Jim Lehrer with or without John McCain."

Given his long-winded responses, Obama could take advantage of the extra time to complete his answers.