What does John McCain need to do in tonight's debate? Oh, it's quite simple.
He needs the A Few Good Men moment, where through the mere power of his words he induces Barack Obama to damn America, embrace terrorists (domestic or otherwise), raise taxes on everyone or make some other statement so jaw-dropping that some significant portion of the 50.1 percent of Americans prepared to cast their ballots for the Democrat wonder what they were thinking. (Never mind that it was the older, angrier, more militarily experienced, I-can't-believe-I-have-to-sit-here-and-listen-to-this-young-snot character who cracked in that movie.)
McCain needs to so dominate Obama that the electorate wonders how it could ever have considered the junior senator from Illinois presidential. Preferably Obama would either be left a blubbering mass or simply withdraw from the election in his closing statement.
Oh, and McCain has to do so while not appearing negative or angry.
Obama's task this evening is easier: He needs to run out the clock and not fumble the ball. That means not promising to install William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright into his cabinet; that means not using words like "honky" in the debate; it means not having a Gerald Ford-esque liberating Poland moment ("The United States is not dependent on foreign oil").
And at least 60 percent of those surveyed in the insta-polls moments after the debate must declare him the winner—anything less than a 20-point victory would be a crushing defeat.
We are of course playing the expectations game, whereby candidate performance is not measured in a void but rather against context and conventional wisdom.
Here's the context and conventional wisdom backdropping the debate: Roughly a month ago, the race was tied in the polls. In the past few weeks, Obama has opened a significant lead, implacably hammering McCain as a negative extension of failed Bush policies. McCain has slipped behind, scrambling from one message to another—last week it was Who is Barack Obama? whereas this week it's I'm a fighter!—claiming to be the steady hand while appearing peripatetic at best.
Which sets up another problem for McCain tonight: He needs to make up ground, but last week's sojourn in the 1960s did McCain more harm than good. He needs to be the happy warrior voters (and especially reporters) remember, but that won't turn the election. And almost regardless of what tack he takes, viewers will be presented with (another) new McCain opposite the same calm, unflappable Obama.
Keep this in mind as well: There's nothing John McCain can do tonight to "win" the debate. He needs Barack Obama's cooperation—it's not enough that McCain succeed; Obama must actively fail.
McCain has been using a naval analogy in recent weeks, talking about a steady hand at the tiller. It's an apt analogy in that an election is like a large ship at sea and takes a long time to turn. There are less than three weeks to go in the election and for reasons I outlined here at Thomas Jefferson Street last week, there's no longer enough time to turn the ship.
I used the wrong movie analogy to open this post—what McCain needs is a Titanic or Poseidon Adventure moment—something to fundamentally alter the ship's course. Never mind that the hand at the tiller in each case didn't fare well in the movie.