Barack Obama is nearly impossible to rattle. His aides and friends are fond of pointing out that his emotional highs are not too high and his lows are never particularly low. It is Obama's almost preternatural calm that will be John McCain's main obstacle at Wednesday night's final presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y.
With less than three weeks to go before Election Day, the Republican presidential nominee faces a daunting overall task. He is so far behind in the national polls and in most key individual states that it is difficult to assemble a single combination of Electoral College votes to get him to the necessary 270. Despite Monday's unprecedented stock market rebound and Tuesday's campaign announcement introducing a new McCain economic policy proposal, voters largely continue to blame the Republicans for the financial crisis and the gloomy mood of an unstable nation. At the same time, the impact of Obama's massive fund-raising advantage has hit full force, as battleground states are flooded with television ads, direct mail and well-paid armies of local organizers. As Obama's lead has held (and even grown in some polls), pundits and political strategists in both parties have begun to assertively predict an easy Obama win, possibly producing a self-fulfilling wave.
Under these challenging circumstances, and with a vast audience of voters tuning in, McCain will enter the debate hall for his last chance to shake up the race. In order to change the dynamic, McCain will have 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.
Yet after more than a dozen primary debates and two previous high-stakes presidential debates, Obama has remained calm to the point of being boring, and so low-energy that McCain often appears to be arguing with himself. Obama nevertheless is uniformly confident and well prepared, his natural demeanor translating into a reassuring steadiness in the eyes of a jittery public.
Obama is unlikely to sigh irritably as Al Gore did in 2000, or get tongue-tied like George W. Bush in 2004, or seem peevish as Bob Dole did in 1996, or gaze impatiently at his watch, as George H.W. Bush did in 1992. Indeed, judging from past debates, it is McCain who has more flashes of churlishness or over-aggressiveness when attempting to corner or humble his opponent.
In recent days, McCain has attempted to move away from his campaign's controversial negative tone, and instead present his genuine optimistic persona and inspire Americans with leadership and good humor during these uncertain times. While still in the midst of this midcourse correction, it may be risky for McCain to strike Obama forcefully in such a high-profile forum.
To make matters even worse for McCain, this final session is focused on domestic policy, an area in which he is considered vulnerable. And yet for all the public interest and media focus on the debates, it is unlikely the last go-round will have a truly game-changing effect.
McCain's best bet is to ignore all the advice he is getting about what he needs to accomplish and how he should comport himself: don't try to be all things to all strategists. Instead, he should say what he truly believes about his own proposals, about Obama's qualifications and about the challenges the country faces, without an overly crafted strategy. His debate performances have improved, and he is always his most likeable and most formidable when he uses his head and speaks from the heart. To slightly tweak the wise old song, dignity is just another word for nothing left to lose. McCain might lose the election, but he doesn't have to lose his reputation in the process.