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PHILADELPHIA—The fate of Friday evening’s presidential debate in Mississippi remained uncertain Thursday night, with Republican John McCain saying he would not participate until a deal on a Wall Street plan was hashed out in Washington.


After a meeting at the White House, which he and Democrat Barack Obama attended, McCain said he was “very hopeful” an agreement could be worked out in time for the debate to proceed. But he made no commitment to attend.


Obama, who like McCain remained in Washington overnight, said that he planned to go to the Mississippi site regardless and that it was “important to have a debate.”


The event—the first of three scheduled encounters between the major-party presidential candidates, and scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time_ was supposed to be limited to issues of foreign policy and national security. But Obama said he expected that the financial crisis would be discussed.


At the debate site, on the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford, final preparations were proceeding Thursday despite the uncertainty. Officials of the university and the state of Mississippi have a lot at stake.


Although the debates are sponsored by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, the events themselves are financed largely by the universities and communities that win the right to host them.


The University of Mississippi, which has never hosted one before, had raised and spent about $5 million—much of it in private donations—to make the necessary preparations.


If and when the debate happens, it will set the stage for the final acts of the 2008 presidential race. And it could do a whole lot more.


History indicates that the first debate of a general election is the one most likely to affect public opinion, because the audience is usually the largest, and first impressions tend to be lasting.


Any shift in voter sentiment could prove significant in this close and historic race. At this point, Obama has opened up a modest lead in most national polls, in part because of the financial crisis.


Some analysts, though, expect undecided voters to wait until the final debate, scheduled for Oct. 15, before making up their minds.


“No event in a campaign focuses the minds of voters more than these debates,” said Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “When it comes to the lesser-known candidate, Sen. Obama, it’s as much about the person as the issues.”


According to the polls, voters see McCain as the more credible commander in chief, based in part on his years of experience in the military and the Senate. That, of course, figures into the expectations game for the foreign-policy debate and into the goals for both candidates.


Obama will be out to increase voters’ comfort level with him and to make the case that his relative lack of experience in national security arena will not hamper him in office.


“The expectations level for McCain has to be enormous, because national security is his campaign’s reason for being,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is working for Obama. “If Sen. Obama show he understands the issues, he wins the debate, regardless of what McCain does.”


McCain wants to be seen as a hard-nosed realist whose command of world affairs makes him the better choice to protect the nation. If he can underline his differences with the Bush administration as well, so much the better for him.


“When the two candidates stand side-by-side, there’ll be a decisive difference,” Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said earlier this week. “Sen. Obama is an able fellow, but he doesn’t have John’s experience and knowledge.”


The big question Thursday night was whether the two will be side-by-side before Friday is over. And if they don’t meet Friday, how would that affect the rest of the schedule, which has the lone vice presidential debate up next on Oct. 2?


Meanwhile, the Obama campaign on Thursday night accused McCain of not really “suspending” his campaign in deference to the financial crisis, as he announced Wednesday he was going to do.


In a memo to reporters, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said that McCain aides were still attacking Obama on television and that some McCain commercials were still on the air.


McCain campaign officials said Thursday night that all their commercials had been taken down.

Tagged as: mccain | obama
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