McCain struggles to regain momentum
Why the last presidential debate could be make-or-break for John McCain.
Last Modified: 15 Oct 2008 18:16 GMT

McCain has little time left to close the poll gap on his Democratic rival [AFP]
This weekend we dropped by the Hofstra University campus on Long Island in New York state to watch the Hofstra Pride men's soccer team battle the University of Delaware Blue Hens.

On the warm October evening, most spectators clearly had their minds on the game.

But these fans - mostly "soccer moms" and dads - say they are also keeping an eye on that other contest - the one between John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate and Barack Obama, his Democratic rival.

"It looks like the electorate is moving towards Barak Obama," said local man Stan Pugliesi.

"It's kind of sad that it takes an economic disaster to wake everyone up, but that's the way it is."

Debbie Gestanini took time out from watching her son play for the Hofstra side to comment: "We like McCain and we like what he's about and what he's saying. Hopefully he'll win."

Obama 'widening lead'

Did McCain's negative attacks on Obama turn off voters [Reuters]
With the third and final debate due to take place  at Hofstra, McCain is running behind Obama - with little time left to close the gap.

A string of new polls out this week show Obama widening his current lead over McCain significantly.

That makes the debate all the more important for McCain, in what may be his last best chance to do something to change the trajectory of the race.

McCain has already promised to "whip [Obama's] you-know-what".

But the Arizona senator's options are limited.

Should he go sharply negative on Obama, perhaps raising the question of Obama's fleeting connection with fomer sixties radical William Ayres?

He tried that all last week and it did not work. The negative attacks may have turned off independent voters and undecideds.

Should he ignore the option of attacking Obama and unveil some new policy proposal, or perhaps make a dramatic gesture - like announcing he would limit himself to one term in the White House?

Desperation or inspiration?

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Past attempts by McCain to mix things up - the choice of Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential nomination, his insertion of himself into the bailout bill negotiations - have all flopped.

A new show-stopping move might come off to voters as more desperation than inspiration.

McCain's support among people over 65 - a key voting bloc -  has fallen since the financial system began to unravel last month.

On Tuesday, McCain trotted out a new tax-cut proposal to help economically distressed older Americans, saying "retirees have suffered enough and need relief, and the surest relief is to let them keep more of their own savings".

The initial debates may have lacked much in the way of zing or zest, but analysts say they boosted Obama's favourability ratings.

"The first debate settled people's minds about an unknown quantity named Barak Obama," says Philip Dalton, Hofstra political science professor.

"He came across, unfiltered by the press, as somebody who was stable and  knowledgeable about foreign issues, in the first debate, and knowledgeable about domestic and economic issues in the second debate.

"I think that makes people comfortable," he said.

'Needing leadership'

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If the polls are accurate, the odds are stacked heavily against McCain.

He has to convince undecided voters like Gerard Viola, a Hofstra graduate student.

"I think we need a real leader," he told us, "so the candidate that presents real leadership is gonna have my vote."

At this late stage of the game, however, most voters have already come off the sidelines and chosen which team they are on.

The pool of undecideds has got much smaller.

"Increasingly, as that pool shrinks, it's going to take a larger percentage of that portion of the electorate to break in McCain's favour and for him to have a chance,"  Dalton says."

With less than three weeks left on the election clock, the question is whether the Republican has a new game plan - and whether he can score any points against his opponent before time runs out.

Al Jazeera
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