Stakes high in first Presidential debate

Friday, September 26th 2008, 7:06 pm
By: News 9

By Alex Cameron, NEWS 9

OXFORD, Mississippi -- Traditionally, Presidential debates help to influence undecided voters, and with so much political drama leading up to this debate, many of those undecideds are sure to be watching.

Senator John McCain announced early on Friday he would attend the first debate, setting the stage for what could prove to be a turning point in the election.

"This is what decides the elections," NEWS 9 pollster Bill Shapard of Shapard Research said.

The confluence of two critical events: the financial meltdown on Wall Street on the eve of the first Presidential debate, could go a long way toward deciding whether Barack Obama or John McCain will win in November.

"I think when Americans begin to look at the way they're responding to this situation, they're going to find their candidate of choice," Shapard said.

Shapard believes each candidate has taken some risk in their respective responses, in McCain's case, the decision to postpone his campaign and possibly skip the debate.

"I understand how important this debate is, and I'm very hopeful, but I also have to put the country first," McCain said.

"You know, there's a fine line between political courage and a political stunt, and if any other politician had done what John Mccain has done over the last couple of days, I think the voting public would look at that as ‘This is a political stunt,'" Shapard said.

But with McCain's history of putting country first, Sharpard said McCain can credibly make the statement that a deal is more important right now than a debate.

"If he shows up at the debate tonight without a deal struck, he's severely compromised," Shapard said.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama's risk is not taking a clear leadership role in the crisis.

"My preference is to use the phone and to talk to people and work with them, including Secretary Paulson, Chairman Bernanke and others, in a way that's not a photo op," Obama said.

Shapard said Obama will need to use Friday's unscripted photo op to show he can be a leader.

"The debate, for Obama, is going to be a turning point, he'll either rise to the challenge or he'll fall a little short, and when you throw in all the events of the last 24 hours, it adds just more pressure to the pressure cooker," Shapard said.

The Commission on Presidential Debates said despite the national focus on the economy, the debate will still be focused on foreign policy and national security, as planned.