Friday's presidential debate still up in the air

'We'll roll with the punches,' CNN political director says

If the presidential debate goes on as scheduled Friday 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 on TV that night gave voters at home the confidence they needed to narrowly elect him as president in November 1960. Barack Obama hopes that Friday's debate -- and the two that follow in the next three weeks -- will help carry him all the way to the presidency on Nov. 4. But John McCain hopes for just the opposite.

Whether the debate 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 go to the debate, 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 on foreign policy and national security.

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.

But there still was concern about whether there really was a breakthrough in the bailout talks and whether it was enough to satisfy the McCain campaign. There was the feeling that the commission would cancel the debate if only Obama showed up because there's little feeling for having a one-sided debate.

Lehrer was in Oxford and prepping as if it would go on.

"At this point, everyone is planning on it happening, and we're monitoring the developments out of Washington like the rest of the country," said Jay Wallace, vp news editorial product at Fox News.

Added CNN political director Sam Feist, "I have a sense that it's going to happen because it seems to be coalescing around a deal" for the bailout.

"Let me tell you, the way this election is going, I really do believe that these debates are going to be crucial," said CBS News' Bob Schieffer, who will moderate the third and final presidential debate Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island. "They may well determine who is going to be the president of the United States."

Susan Page, Washington bureau chief at USA Today, agreed.

"That's when voters who are not decided really start to tune in and pay attention," Page said. "I think that's more true this year than the last several elections."

That's not always the case. The debates -- and the TV networks that carry them -- have only tipped the balance on a few occasions. The gold standard is 1960, though President Ford's out-of-left-field declaration in 1976 that Poland wasn't in the Communist bloc and Ronald Reagan's strong performance in his one and only debate against Jimmy Carter in 1980 also show how what can happen in this year's three debates can make a big difference.

GOP strategist Ed Rollins said that in 1980, voters weren't sure about the one-time actor and California governor. But Reagan convinced voters on the strength of that single debate.

It also was, according to Nielsen Media Research, the most-watched debate in TV history with 80.6 million viewers. But that was before the rise of cable TV news.

At an Advertising Week event this week in New York before the current crisis over the debate, Democratic strategist Bob Schrum also pointed to 1980 as a possible historical precedent.

"If Obama does his job and people feel more comfortable with him and more comfortable with his experience, it will break toward Obama because it's a change election," Schrum said.

Or, as Rollins said afterward, McCain has got to prove that he can be commander in chief and economist in chief. Obama, he said, has to knock down perceptions that he may not be "ready for primetime."

Tonight's debate will have two-minute answers to each of the questions, followed by five minutes of discussion by the candidates. It's the first time that presidential candidates have agreed to such open-ended guidelines.

The next debate is a town hall-styled one, which will be moderated by Tom Brokaw on Oct. 7 in Nashville.