To be or not to be? That is the debate

Nets, Obama, organizers, nation still in limbo

If the presidential debate goes on as scheduled tonight at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, it will mark the anniversary of a night 48 years ago when another Navy veteran and longtime Washington hand met a relatively inexperienced young candidate with the White House in the balance.

John F. Kennedy's performance against Richard Nixon on TV that night gave voters at home the confidence they needed to narrowly elect him as president in November 1960.

But whether the debate between Barack Obama and John McCain would happen wasn't known late Thursday. It wasn't clear whether there had been enough progress on the government's financial bailout plan for McCain to be persuaded to participate, though the three other stakeholders — the Obama campaign, the debate organizers and the news media — were moving ahead as planned.

One thing seems sure: Even with all the recent uncertainty surrounding whether the debate would happen on schedule, tonight's face-off seems like the main event. Although Friday nights aren't usually known for drawing TV audiences, it's likely that viewers by the tens of millions will turn out on broadcast and cable to watch. The 90-minute debate begins at 9 p.m. EDT, with PBS "NewsHour" anchor Jim Lehrer asking the questions.

Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith will be in Oxford to anchor the cabler's coverage of the debate. Also on the scene will be NBC's Brian Williams and CBS' Katie Couric. Thousands of print and electronic journalists were in Mississippi or on their way Thursday, even given the uncertainty. (partialdiff)