In-depth coverage of the candidates and the issues, all leading up to the Aug. 5 primary and the Nov. 4 general election.
Washington — Running short on time, John McCain has the most riding on the second presidential debate, though Barack Obama will be out of his scripted comfort zone in the town hall-style confrontation. It could be ugly if Monday's tussling is any indication.
Tonight's debate comes exactly four weeks before Election Day with a lot going on both inside and outside the campaign: Polling shows Obama approaching the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory, Wall Street is tumbling even further and both candidates are escalating character attacks.
Their target audience in the debate: the roughly 10 percent of the electorate who are undecided and an additional quarter who say they might still change their minds before Nov. 4.
The debate, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., is supposed to be divided equally between the economy and foreign policy, but given the global financial turmoil, economic questions may well dominate. As markets were plunging in Europe and Asia as well as the U.S. on Monday, the candidates were going after each other.
In Florida, GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin raised Obama's ties to 1960s-era radical William Ayers and to the Democrat's former pastor, the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In New Mexico, McCain himself asked, "Who is the real Senator Obama," referred to him critically as a "Chicago politician" and argued that the Democrat says one thing and does another.
Obama, in turn, asserted in North Carolina that McCain was engaging "in the usual political shenanigans and smear tactics" to distract from economic issues, even as his own aides in Chicago assailed the Republican nominee for "an angry tirade" and went after him for his role in the 1980s Keating Five savings and loan scandal.
McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, is trailing in polls and facing dwindling options to thwart Democrat Obama in an enormously troublesome political landscape for Republicans. Obama, the first-term Illinois senator, wants to solidify his lead and avoid any major debate misstep that could set him back in his quest to become the country's first black president.
Each hunkered down with top aides over the weekend to prepare, McCain at his vacation compound near Sedona, Ariz., Obama in the western mountains of newly competitive North Carolina.
In the 90-minute debate, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw will facilitate questions from the audience as tens of millions of viewers tune in from across the country.
McCain is most comfortable during the give-and-take of question-and-answer events that were a hallmark of his 2000 campaign, and his 2008 primary effort. But his consistency largely depends on his mood. When he's on his game, McCain is witty and charming, filled with ready one-liners and stories from his past. When he's off, McCain can come across cranky, surly and prone to gaffes.
Obama typically is much more at ease giving speeches from behind a lectern, though he has taken impromptu questions from audiences and has grown much more adept at the back-and-forth of voter-question sessions throughout the campaign. The debate provides the professorial Obama with an opportunity to show some emotion and seal the deal with voters still struggling to see him as president.