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McCain and Obama's To-Do List for the Debate

John McCain always likes being the underdog, he has told us. That's good -- because he's not leading the presidential race. Depending on your favorite poll he's either behind or essentially tied. And we are in the midst of a financial meltdown which most voters blame on his Republican Party.

That makes the first presidential debate -- whenever and wherever it occurs -- critical. Although the topic is foreign policy, it is probable that the current financial crisis will come up.  And McCain is unlikely to have a better opportunity to make his argument to the American people that only he is ready to lead in troubling times.

McCain needs to do several things.

First, he must finally convince voters why the surge matters and why it should be the prism by which they evaluate the candidates. Iraq has receded from the headlines and Barack Obama has sufficiently fudged up his position. Recently he seemed to concede that the surge had after all succeeded beyond anyone's "wildest dreams" -- except McCain's, presumably. If the issue is simply "I was right; he was wrong" the voters may not be moved.

But McCain's argument is more fundamental: Obama never did and still doesn't understand the gravity of a potential defeat to al-Qaeda. McCain will claim that Obama was unable and unwilling to give General David Petraeus the support needed to achieve victory. Call it a failure of will or a failure of imagination, but Obama proved, McCain will argue, that he won't do what is necessary in the war on terror. Obama's statement this summer that he would not even in retrospect have supported the surge epitomizes the extent to which his national security judgment is compromised by fidelity to his left-wing base. In short, McCain needs to argue that Obama can't be trusted to complete the job in Iraq and to pursue victory elsewhere.

Next, McCain would do well to remind voters of Obama's troubling performance this summer when Russia invaded Georgia. Obama's initial tour de force of moral equivalence was followed by a series of statements which seemed to place excessive and unrealistic faith in the UN Security Council, where Russia holds a veto. Again, McCain's message must be that in the face of imminent danger Obama blinks.