BALTIMORE | Sen. Barack Obama will hunker down nearly all week to prepare for the most crucial 90 minutes of his political life - the first presidential debate - and has chosen a famous Washington lawyer who defended the would-be assassin of President Reagan to play Sen. John McCain in preparations.
Aware of how high the stakes are, top Obama advisers Sunday sought to lower expectations for the debate, which will focus on foreign policy.
“John McCain has boasted throughout the campaign about his decades of Washington foreign-policy experience and what an advantage that would be for him,” senior adviser Robert Gibbs said. “This debate offers him major home-court advantage and anything short of a game-changing event will be a key missed opportunity for him.”
Political pundits say that if Mr. Obama can hold his own on foreign policy, voters may look past his little experience on the topic as a first-term senator. He delivers nearly all of his speeches using a teleprompter, and he had several uneven performances in debates during the Democratic primaries.
Mr. Obama will hole up in Tampa, Fla., where veteran lawyer Greg Craig will play the role of Mr. McCain in practice sessions. Mr. Craig was a member of President Clinton’s defense team during Senate impeachment proceedings after the president lied about his sexual affair with a White House intern.
Mr. Craig was also the architect of John Hinckley’s successful insanity defense after Hinckley tried to assassinate Mr. Reagan. In 2004, he was a stand-in for President Bush when Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry prepared for his debates.
The McCain campaign refused to release who would play Mr. Obama in their debate preparations, which are set for Thursday and Friday.
Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain are scheduled to debate three times between Friday and Oct. 15; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Gov. Sarah Palin, their respective running mates, face off just once, on Oct. 2.
On Sunday, to cheers from thousands of National Guardsmen clad in their Class B uniforms, Mr. McCain said that his rival’s “failure of judgment” in opposing the surge of combat troops to Iraq disqualifies him for the post of commander in chief.
The Republican nominee shifted the topic from the economy to national security, surrounding himself with military members, many of whom have pulled duty in Iraq.
“My opponent, Senator Obama, likes to say that the surge in Iraq was more successful that anyone could have predicted at the time,” Mr. McCain said at the annual gathering of the National Guard Association. “And to this day, Senator Obama still cannot bring himself to admit his own failure in judgment. Instead, he commits the greater error of insisting that even in hindsight, he would oppose the surge.
“Behind all of these claims and positions by Senator Obama lies the ambition to be president. What’s missing is the judgment to be commander in chief. In short, both candidates in this election pledge to end this war and bring our troops home. The great difference is that I intend to win it first,” he said to deafening whoops as the guardsmen leapt to their feet.
Seeking to capitalize on an issue that could be good for him, Mr. Obama stayed focused on the economy. In a speech Sunday, he tied his opponent to the policies of the Bush administration - and the last 25 years.
“While I certainly don’t fault Senator McCain for all of the problems we’re facing right now, I do fault the economic philosophy he’s followed during his 26 years in Washington,” the Democrat said in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s a philosophy that says it’s OK to turn a blind eye to practices that reward financial manipulation instead of sound business decisions. It’s a philosophy that says even common-sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise.”
Mr. Obama criticized Mr. McCain, calling him “fundamentally a deregulator.”