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CNN ELECTION CENTER

Presidential Candidates Prepare to Debate

Aired September 26, 2008 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome, everybody.
It is game on. Yes, the debate is actually happening. One hour from now, it gets under way.

I'm here with Wolf Blitzer.

And we weren't sure earlier today that it was going to happen tonight.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And only a few hours ago did we know for sure that John McCain was, in fact, going to go forward and fly from Washington down to Mississippi. That's where they are right now.

Campbell, I know you want to welcome them. I want to welcome them as well. Our viewers, not only the United States, but around the world, I think it is fair to say a lot of the world, Campbell, is watching right now.

BROWN: And, yes, what a dramatic day it has been. What an exciting night it's going to be, so many things to talk about, of course, over the next hour, too, what position both of these candidates are in coming in to this.

Did John McCain's gamble, postponing, suspending his campaign, pay off? Will it be seen as a successful move or a political stunt? And what will happen tonight during this hour-and-a-half that they go at it?

BLITZER: And in almost all of the polls right now, it shows about 10 percent of American voters are undecided. And it's fair to say a lot of them potentially could make up their minds based on what happens in Mississippi tonight.

Let me introduce to our viewers in the United States and around the world the best political team on television. And let's take a wide shot of this table over here. Anderson Cooper is there. Campbell brown is here. John King is over there, Gloria Borger, Jeff Toobin, David Gergen, and our Christiane Amanpour and Michael Ware.

Tonight's debate is supposed to focus, Campbell, on foreign policy so we have asked two of the best foreign correspondents in the world to join us with their assessments.

We also have some of the best analysts standing by at table number two, we are going to call it. Bill Bennett is there, Donna Brazile, Alex Castellanos, Paul Begala. And, among others, we have reporters down at Ole Miss right now. Jessica Yellin is up on Capitol Hill. Ed Henry is at the White House. We will go to them shortly as well, Campbell.

But let's first check in with Suzanne Malveaux.

Suzanne, you have been down at the campus now for a couple of days. I know they were nervous whether or not this debate would go forward. We are now less than an hour away. Set the stage. What's it like on the campus?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, it really was a sense of high anxiety the last 48 hours.

I was talking to the chancellor of the university in the beginning of the day and he was talking about possible contingency plans if Barack Obama was alone on stage, holding some sort of kind of town hall meeting like.

But we had the chance to talk to a lot of Republicans, a lot of McCain supporters. Many were disappointed, some who were offended. One of the editorial pages of a local paper put it this way. They said that they believe that McCain lost his Southern manners in a place where manners really matter.

We talked to a third grade teacher who also said, I'm a McCain woman, but he hurt my feelings, but I'm going to remain a McCain woman.

So, I think the question here, Wolf, is really, there's a lot of support for McCain here in Mississippi, reliably a red state. There is some support for Barack Obama. But are voters outside of this arena, outside of this state really going to buy in to the fact that this was kind of a bold, maverick move, if you will, going to Washington, dealing with those negotiations? Or are they going to see it as bad form? That is still an unanswered question -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne, stand by.

Candy Crowley is in the auditorium right now.

Candy, I guess the guests who are invited -- it's a hot ticket down at Ole Miss, no doubt about that -- they're coming in, and pretty soon the candidates will be introduced and this debate will go forward. You have been covering the Obama campaign and they're trying to lower expectations for their own candidate.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're trying to raise them for John McCain is what it boils down, Wolf.

They're saying, well, John McCain has said he is the expert on foreign policy, so this really ought to be his debate. They go on to say he really needs a game-changer. If he doesn't do that, it is a serious blow to the campaign.

So, they have been pounding John McCain, obviously, all week long, first for his abrupt decision to go back to Washington. They have kind of let the surrogates do this. Barack Obama has been less involved in the kind of roughing up of John McCain.

So, what they're trying to do now basically just raise those expectations for John McCain, because, as you know, then they come out afterwards and say, well, he didn't change the game. And they are watching polls, obviously, in the Obama campaign, as he begins to go up a little and John McCain seems to be fading a little.

Still, enormously close, but the trajectory has been toward Obama over these past couple of weeks, as this huge economic story hit the headlines, Wolf.

BLITZER: Candy, we're going to have you stand by.

I want to walk over to Dana Bash. Dana has been covering the McCain campaign for us.

Dana, he had said only a couple days ago he was -- quote -- "suspending" his campaign, rushing to Washington to get involved in the negotiations for the $700 billion bailout proposal, said he wouldn't come to Ole Miss to the debate unless there was a deal. Well, guess what? There's no deal.

Explain to us what they explained to you, why he decided to change his mind.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, the theatrics of the morning were such that I was running after John McCain through the halls of the Capitol as he walked, went to talk to the Senate Republican leader and the House Republican leadership, and you know, to get to the point where he could say, according to his aides, that he feels comfortable that there's -- quote -- "sufficient progress" and enough that he could come here to the debate.

You're right. The reality, though, is there were basically no talks today as he was flying here, despite the fact that he felt that there was significant progress. But what is the real deal here? The real deal is in talking to McCain advisers over the past 24 to 36 hours, they made clear that he basically had no choice politically but to come here tonight for the same reason that Candy was talking about, basically because they understand where the polls are going with regard to the economy, which has been front and center.

And they are hoping that by coming here, by they hope focusing on the issue of foreign policy which he does well at and he has gone around the country and said that he is much better at it than Barack Obama, and that that could help change the game for him.

But he certainly is doing the thing inside his campaign that Obama is doing. They're trying to lower expectations for the way John McCain can perform tonight. One of his aides even said he is not an extraordinary debater by any stretch of the imagination. That was one of John McCain's aides talking about him.

BLITZER: A lot of spinning going on before. And there will be an enormous amount of spinning going on afterwards. Our heads will be spinning as a result of this. Dana, I want you to stand by right now.

Campbell, I don't think we can overemphasize how significant, how important the stakes are for these two men tonight.

BROWN: No. And there's going to be a lot of talk over the next hour about what they both need to accomplish as we go into this.

But, Gloria, start us off and tell us a little bit about what got us here, because it has been such an incredible week. But, given what's happened, what position do you think John McCain and Barack Obama are in going into this?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think John McCain would have gone in to this quite frankly a lot stronger. Foreign policy is his area of expertise, but he's just come off of 10 days where he's looked a little flailing, shall we say? Some would say erratic, unpredictable, starting out by saying that the fundamentals of the economy are strong, and then swooping in to Washington to rescue a bailout plan, that he says the economy is in desperate straits.

So, he comes in to this having something to prove and that is a leadership quality, a temperamental quality. Everybody knows he knows an awful lot about foreign policy.

Barack Obama on the other hand has to prove that he's ready to be president. He has to prove to the country that he's safe enough to be commander in chief. McCain does very well on those polling questions, Barack Obama not so much.

BROWN: And do you agree with that, David, that I guess John McCain has more at stake, at least in Gloria's view?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think both have a lot at stake. But there's a difference.

And that is, John McCain needs to win. He needs a clear and convincing win in the eyes of the public. For Barack Obama, a tie is sufficient, because the momentum of this campaign began to change about two weeks ago, when the financial markets went -- you know, went spiraling downward.

And that's elevated Barack Obama, given him this opening. And then John McCain took this gamble and, you know, in a situation where he thought he might sink if he didn't take the gamble, and the gamble misfired. The Sarah Palin gamble so far has paid off. This gamble has put him in a hole. So, he comes in on the defensive tonight. He comes in, in a situation where people are looking at him.

And the Obama campaign is using this new word buzz word of erratic. And you see that echoed in George Will, a conservative columnist. You see that echoed in 'The Wall Street Journal," a conservative editorial page. So, this is a very big deal for John McCain. This is the moment that he should be able to seize on, because the other debates on domestic issues do play to Obama's strength. BROWN: Christiane, talk to us a little bit, because, as Wolf said, this is not just a domestic audience. The world is watching tonight. How's the world viewing this?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right.

If you look at the polls around the world, which of course has got nothing to do with the U.S. election, but Barack Obama in those countries where they do poll is by far the most popular amongst the people.

Having said that, John McCain is considered in the United States and around the world as the more experienced. But on the substance, certainly the world will be looking at which is the next president who can elevate the United States' image again, which has been so badly tarnished, who can create leadership, effective leadership, not a popularity contest, but again put America back in that unique leadership position, so that it can actually get its business done.

They will be looking at what the candidates are going to say about Iraq, where they differ, what they're going to say about Afghanistan, where they're fairly similar on Afghanistan, what they're going to say about dealing with some of these terribly thorny issues, such as nuclear proliferation, the problems with Iran, with North Korea.

Barack Obama has staked out a position that says that he would open negotiations on these issues with these countries without conditions. John McCain has said he would not. Many former foreign secretaries here, secretaries of state of the United States have advised the next president to actually put aside the silent treatment that the Bush administration has had and actually try engagement, because that would be a way to actually get some of these very, very difficult issues talked about and discussed.

So, interesting to see whether John McCain hammers Barack Obama on that.

BROWN: All right, a lot more to talk about, including the fact that this was supposed to be focused solely on foreign policy, and the economy has been such a game-changer in all of this.

Stay with us. A lot more ahead, the best political team on television, as we await the debate, 50 minutes away from start time.

Stay with us. We will be back after a short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Welcome back, everybody.

We are about 45 minutes away from the start of the debate at Ole Miss down in Oxford, Mississippi, everybody looking forward to this moment that we have been waiting for, riding the roller-coaster ride of today, wondering whether it was going to happen or not. But it is on. John McCain will be there. And we're back with the best political team on television, or, as Jeffrey Toobin pointed out, the best political team in the world, because we have Michael Ware and Christiane Amanpour with us tonight. And we're taking full advantage of it.

And, Michael, let me pick up where we left off with you and talk a little bit about Iraq. You have spent so much time there. This was very much considered to be a strength for John McCain...

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

BROWN: ... especially with the success of the surge, how he would be able to highlight that. But if you look at the polling now, where Iraq falls in terms of people's priorities, I think it is number four in our latest CNN poll, health care ahead of it, and certainly the economy ahead of it, terrorism more generally ahead of it.

Is, in a way, John McCain a victim of his own success? Americans are not paying attention to Iraq. They don't want to talk about it. They want to talk about the Iraq, so he doesn't get to highlight where he was on many of those issues.

WARE: Well, it cuts both ways, really. I mean, obviously, for people back home, these day-to-day issues are much more salient. They're front and center. That's what people are living, you know, dawn to dusk. So, that's what people care about.

And Iraq, Iraq is a double-edged sword for Senator McCain. Yes, it's been one of the center points of his credibility as a potential leader in international affairs, but he has got so much wrong on Iraq as well. And the more and more he and even Senator Obama stick to these -- this trite sort of sound-biting of the surge, the surge, the surge, it's evident that they're dumbing it down, the complexities of the war in Iraq.

And the more they hammer that point, success or failure, the more they're revealing or they're telling us that they're not looking at the real issues, like, what is the surge? It goes far beyond 30,000 extra combat troops. I mean, we are talking about a whole host of factors. And, at the end of the day, the success we are seeing in Iraq comes with a heavy price tag.

And to just keep rabbiting on about the surge ignores the real issues that will face the next president.

BROWN: Christiane, do you agree with that?

AMANPOUR: Well, some of it.

Look, it is undeniable -- and thank goodness -- that things are better in Iraq, and part of it is because of the extra troops, like all the generals said, all the people in uniform said before the war, that, in order to win the peace, you need hundreds of thousands of troops to keep the peace, to enforce the peace.

So, the surge has worked in that respect. It is doing a lot better on the ground. It is coming at a high price. There's a lot of ethnic separation. There's a lot of walls even within Baghdad. Sunnis can't go to Shiite areas and et cetera.

But, also, the political initiative that General Petraeus took in terms of getting the Sunnis on board, but the big question is, what does happen if the United States pulls out? Will the political momentum that is just sort of creeping along now, will it be strong enough to stay and succeed? Will the Shiite leadership, which are dominant right now in Iraq, will it realize that its future lies in compromise, in a whole Iraq, and therefore it must keep the Sunnis in place, or not?

And I think that's really going to be a very, very dangerous and tricky situation. And I think nobody's suggesting -- even the president of Iran this weekend to the press said that the United States should come out of Iraq, but on a timetable. Even he didn't say immediately.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm also wondering how much Barack Obama tonight tries to shift from talking about Iraq as a foreign policy issue to Iraq as a domestic economic issue, and how much he tries to make that linkage.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is remarkable how -- what a different campaign we are talking about tonight heading into the final five weeks than we were the beginning.

Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee in part because he was the most anti-war candidate. He was the guy who opposed it from the beginning. All the juice in the Democratic Party at the beginning of the race was who is most pure on being against the Iraq war, who will get the troops home yesterday. That was the beginnings of the Democratic race.

He has a very different challenge tonight, because the American people realize, whether they're for McCain, Obama or they're that 10 percent sitting at home saying, who, is that it is a dangerous world.

These two have outlined and live in a very dangerous world and cover these things.

And so they need a president who they probably -- maybe they think Iraq was a mistake. But they want to know, let's not look back in the rear-view mirror. What are you going to do now? Maybe they think this guy from Iran, who was just here, maybe they think he is a little crazy or they think he's a threat to Israel. What are you going to do going forward?

So Barack Obama was the anti-war Democrat. Tonight, he needs to be someone who would be a strong, but a safe president. It is a very different challenge.

BORGER: But, to Anderson's point, I think that point that Barack Obama is going to make is that look at how much this war is costing you. We don't have any money anymore. There's an oil surplus in Iraq. And we're still spending this kind of money over there every month when we need to deal with it at home.

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: But you know what? That's a no-win, because they're going to have to spend money and troops and treasure in Afghanistan, if it's not in Iraq.

(CROSSTALK)

WARE: ... dollars and cents here.

BROWN: All right, guys, hold on, much, much more to talk about on this subject and many others.

I should mention to you that Christiane and Michael are going to be leaving us shortly, but will be back after the debate with much more analyst. And we will see what they both have to say on Iraq and many other foreign policy issues as well.

We want to throw it now to Wolf.

BLITZER: Campbell, thanks very much.

There's no doubt that foreign policy is the stated subject for tonight, but there's also no doubt that what's happening in Washington right now, the standoff on this $700 billion bailout for the U.S. economy, that's going to be a topic that's certainly going to come up at this debate tonight.

When we come back, we're going to go to Capitol Hill and the White House. Our reporters are standing by for the latest negotiations under way right now on trying to come up with some sort of deal. Will it happen?

And, remember, CNNPolitics.com is where you can go. Join us there. Join us here. But, you know, a good idea is to watch with us your laptop. You will get a lot more useful information at CNNPolitics.com as well, a lively chat going on there at the same time.

Much more of our coverage here from the CNN Election Center right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're just a little bit more than a half-an-hour away from the start of this historic debate, this first presidential debate between these two candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama.

And it comes at an extraordinary moment in U.S. history. When you listen to some top economists, they say the current economic crisis facing the United States may be the most severe since the Great Depression of the 1920s and '30s.

But negotiations are under way right now to try to come up with some sort of solution, some sort of Band-Aid or something much more serious. Let's go to our reporters who are covering this up on Capitol Hill, Jessica Yellin. Ed Henry is over at the White House.

Jessica, to you. This debate is about to start, but we understand that negotiations are taking place even now and throughout this weekend to try to come up with a deal.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

After a day of partisan maneuvering, there is a real sense here that negotiations are back on track. Tonight, staffers from all parties are going to continue to work through a draft plan that they intend to present tomorrow to the key negotiating members, who will sit down with Secretary Paulson and hammer out the big-item issues.

Will this plan include an insurance provision? How big will the package be? All those major negotiating points that you need actual congressional members to decide themselves. Now, even the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, is releasing a statement tonight saying he feels that good progress has been made in bringing all sides together, but emphasizing again that time is of the essence.

And our sense of the timing here is that all sides hope to have something, some sort of agreement, worked out by Sunday. At some point, they would love to have a vote in one body, perhaps the House, at a point on Sunday, perhaps in the evening, even possibly Monday morning. They would hope to have a vote in the Senate also Monday, but that does to some eyes seem pushing it. It could even take place Wednesday.

This is, of course, the most optimistic scenario. But everyone we are talking to, Democrat, Republican, House, Senate, really does feel that there's momentum again to get something done -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And they're looking at those stock markets. The Asian markets open Sunday night. The U.S. markets open Monday morning. That's a key factor right now. Jessica's up on the Hill.

Let's walk over and talk to Ed Henry. He's over at the White House.

The president has gone out virtually every day to make the case of the urgency of what's going on. But it's ironic, his biggest problem, Ed, not necessarily with Democrats. His biggest problem may be with House Republicans.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. It is a real sign of the president's diminished clout.

You will remember, at the beginning of the administration, which is a natural course of events, of course, the president had a lot more clout, especially with Republicans on the Hill. Now he's got a Democratic Congress. And they're actually helping him at least a bit on this bailout package, whereas his own Republicans, he is having a much harder time with.

When I was walking out here a few moments ago, there were a lot of lights still on in the West Wing. They're obviously keeping a close eye on what Jessica's reporting about negotiations on Capitol Hill.

I actually asked a senior White House official, are you going to be following the negotiations on the bailout? Are you going to be watching the debate, maybe both, maybe neither? This official told me, I will probably keep an eye on both, but I would rather be looking at neither.

And what he meant was that, first of all, of course, this White House wishes that there was not this financial crisis either for the nation or for the president's legacy. And, secondly, on the debate, there are a lot of political animals in that building behind me who are veterans of the president's election in 2000, his reelection in 2004.

They normally eat, drink and sleep politics, but they don't feel very connected to this campaign, Wolf, because John McCain in particular has kept the president at arm's length -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed is going to stay at the White House for us. They're working over at the White House as well.

Let's walk over to our CNN contributors, who have got some thoughts on what's going on.

And, Paul Begala, I will start with you. Will they reach an agreement between now and Sunday night, let's say, so that the Asian markets, when they open, they will be encouraged that Washington is getting the act together?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They certainly want to. And everybody I talked to on the Hill understands the timing of the markets. They don't want to see another 400-point drop in the Dow. So, I think, yes.

I think, frankly, now that the two presidential candidates are occupied doing what they ought to be doing, debating the issues out in public, the congressional folks can go in private and try to cut this deal. So, yes, I think that we will by Sunday.

BLITZER: How will it play in the debate tonight, Alex?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, tonight, I think Americans are going to look at the character of two men. This is how we test our leaders, moments of crisis.

We never know what crisis will face a president. We will see how -- we want to test them during our campaigns' moments just like these. Who has the strength? Who looks solid? If they play politics tonight, everyone loses. Nobody will win playing politics tonight. Tonight is a night to be serious.

BLITZER: And, Donna, when you look at -- when you get ready -- we're only about a half-hour away from the start of this debate -- take us inside, because you have worked with candidates. You were Al Gore's campaign manager when he went into those debates back in 2000. How nervous are these presidential nominees?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, at this point, you're trying to get the candidate real loose.

I mean, they have been prepped. They have had so many exercises. You are really trying to get the candidate to loosen up and to just get ready to go out.

Remember, this is not a final exam. It is a makeup test, really, for John McCain, who now must convince the American people that he is prepared, he has the right temperament. And, for Barack Obama, he must reassure voters that he can not only lead at a time of war, but he understands that the economy and national security are not in two separate boxes on his desk. They're one and the same. In order for us to do what we need to do internationally, We need a strong economy.

I have often heard a recommendation, Bill Bennett, for these candidates, you know, just be yourself. Don't try to pretend you're someone else. Just be yourself. And the American public wants a genuine person in the White House.

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes.

And my wife often says to me, be a little less of yourself today.

(LAUGHTER)

BENNETT: It happens from time to time.

These are two distinct personalities. If you have had them as Shakespearian characters, Obama has got to worry about being the Hamlet character. He has to show he can act, he can speak simply, he's got resolve.

McCain has to worry about being hot spur, you know, the guy who gallops of in all directions. He has to show he's steady. I think the key here in terms of the foreign policy issue -- I agree with David Gergen -- John McCain has to win this debate. This is supposed to be his stuff.

Barack Obama has to show he has not inexperienced, doesn't seem inexperienced. John McCain has to show that he really is very experienced. And I hope he does talk about the surge. I know there are a lot of factors but I think he need to put it very starkly, if we had not done the surge, if we had followed Obama's advice what the alternative would be. And I think he will remind people that he put his whole campaign in lock to this issue.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm sure that will come up. Paul Begala, I remember the '92 campaign, the '96 campaign, you helped prepare one presidential candidate, that would be Bill Clinton. What are you going to be looking for? I know you're looking for some specific -- give us three points that you want to see from these candidates.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, debates are often lost not won. Very hard to win one. Once in a while, Lloyd Benson, one in a lifetime gets off a great line that wins. So you want to avoid losing. And I think each guy has three huge risks. If McCain has one of these three things he's in trouble. A senior moment or he looks befuddled. Or a Mcnasty moment, where he looks too angry, or a trigger-happy moment, as Bill points out, when he looks like he might want to bomb the world.

Barack has three big risks just as great, I think. I think the first is too professorial. I don't want to see Professor Obama talking around the issues. The second, he can be sarcastic and he was to Hillary Clinton a few times in the primaries. Very unattractive.

And the third, gun shy. Right? He doesn't want to be Hamlet. He's got to look strong and assertive. So I think Bill makes some good points and I think if any of those three things happen to either candidate, they're going to lose. Just the debate not the whole election.

BLITZER: All right, guys. I want everybody to stand by because you make some good points, and he always usually does. And we're going to pick up on those thoughts. I want everybody to stand by.

We'll take a quick break. Here's some important information. When we come back, we're going to show you why you must, repeat, must watch this debate here on CNN. Because you're going to see something here you're not going to see anyplace else.

Our coverage will continue. Remember, CNNpolitics.com is where you can get a lot more useful information. The best political team on television is standing by. We're only minutes away from the start of this debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're getting ready for the first presidential debate. A historic night here in the United States. We're watching what's going on and there are folks watching all over the country.

We have some watch parties that are going on in Washington and in Las Vegas. But we want to go to Columbus, Ohio, right now. Soledad O'Brien is standing by.

Soledad, you have a focus group that you've gathered there. Explain who these people are and what they're looking for.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: The group we have assembled tonight, the panel, consists of students and a woman who works in insurance, the bartender, an unemployed machinist, homemaker, a teacher, a retired 62-year-old man, a plant manager, and much more. We've got 32 people seated here and the breakdown roughly equally, roughly. Registered independent, registered Democrat, registered Republican.

Now what they all have in common, though, is they've all said they're very likely or definitely going to vote and they've all said that they are persuadable. Meaning, that they are willing to be flexible. Even if they already feel like they're leaning to a candidate, they're willing to be flexible in what they hear tonight in the debate. So, what we're measuring and you're going to get to see this live on TV tonight, and this is Andy (ph) Thompson, who's agreed to kind of help us out, this is the perception analyzer, the dial test meter. So you kind of keep at 50, Andy (ph), because that's sort of the middle ground. But if Andy (ph) is unhappy during the debate, with what she's hearing, she'll turn it to the left. You see "number one" there, that's as low as it goes. If she feels like wow, what the candidate is saying is really resonating with her, she'll turn it -- wonderful job, Andy, up to 100. That means she's loving what she's hearing. She's excited about it.

It's all measured, Wolf, second by second, turns the computers. Two professors from MSU (ph) are really tracking all of this, and we'll be able to see that live on the screen.

The really interesting thing I think is we'll be able the see what literally what phrases are resonating with the audience here within these walls. They've all been walked through how to use it and we've heard some of the interesting questions. After the debate is over, they're going to go back and re-ask some of those questions.

For example, what's the number one issue? The people in this room polled 48 percent said the economy, 12 percent said health care. None, zero percent said war in Iraq, and 12 percent said gas prices. Ninety-seven percent said they think the country is going the wrong direction, and 70 percent said they think Barack Obama is going to win the debate tonight.

That's before anything's already started. That's what we have. We'll see how it goes, Wolf, of course, after the debate when we check in and check out the numbers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Soledad, we're going to be getting back to you. We're actually going to see how it goes throughout the debate. Now, I want to explain to our viewers what they're going to be seeing on their screens.

And when you see the candidates there, at the bottom of your screens, you're going to see those dials, those lines moving. The Republican voters, the Democratic voters, the independent voters of that focus group in Columbus, Ohio. It's going to be in realtime going up or down, and you're going to get a sense of how these persuadable voters are reacting to what they hear. It's a feature we want to show you because it will give us an indication of where the candidates are scoring points and not scoring points.

Now, for those of you who actually have high definition TV and you're lucky if you do have high definition TV, CNN does go out in high def right now. Take a look on the sides of your screens. This is only for those who have high definition.

Our analysts are going to have a score card who scored a point, who took advantage of something and who missed an opportunity. And you see on the left over here, Paul Begala, Bill Bennett, Gloria Borger, they're going to be going back and forth and giving a scorecard of who took advantage of some opportunities and who missed opportunities. And Donna Brazile, Alex Castellanos and John King, they're going to be doing the same thing.

So feature for those of you who have high def. Those of you who don't have high def, unfortunately, you're not going to be seeing that. But we'll be talking a lot about it once this debate afterwards why it works.

I want to go to John King right now. He's over at the magic wall. John, Ohio -- it's about as important a state right now as any of the 50.

JOHN KING, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It sure is, Wolf, and let's show a little history to show why Soledad O'Brien is in Ohio and why she's in the Columbus area. Here it is right here.

It is both a bell weather and a battleground. It is cliche but true that no Republican has ever won the White House without winning the state of Ohio. At the moment, John McCain has a very slight lead in most polls but we call it a toss-up.

I want to go back in time here to the 2004 presidential election and we'll bring up the counties. Look at where -- here's where Soledad is right in here.

This is Franklin County in Columbus. So I'm going to circle it here. This is red. This is 2004. Red all around it, blue in the middle.

John Kerry won Franklin County. Let me -- that's the state. Let me pull out the county now. If you look at Franklin County, John Kerry actually won 54 percent to 45 percent, yet he lost the state of Ohio because George W. Bush, look at all that red around it, and I'll come back for the full map for (ph) just a second.

It is a great state to look at because you have urban area in Cleveland, African-American population. A Republican city down here in Cincinnati, Akron up here, blue collar voters, very important in this election. Columbus is in the middle and that's a good place for it because it is truly middle.

I want to pull out Franklin County again. This is 2004 again, 55-40. Let's go back in time. We'll go back to the 2000 election. Again, the Democrats won it, Al Gore, but just barely in Franklin County, Ohio.

Why? That's why Soledad is in a room with persuadables. There are a lot of Democrats and Republicans who split their tickets in this town. Also, a growing number of independents in this part of Ohio, 49-48. It was in 2000.

Let's go back to 1996. It stays blue there. Bill Clinton carrying with just 48 percent of the vote. Bob Dole at 45. Ross Perot getting a little vote in there. So she's in a central area and a persuadable area, a swing area of a very critical state, Wolf, in this election and in every presidential election.

BLITZER: And I'm anxious to see how those persuadable -- we're calling it persuadable voters, John, how they react, and our viewers will be able to see how they react throughout the course of this 90- minute debate.

Campbell Brown is standing by with some of the best analysts in the business. We're going to go to her in just a moment. But remember, CNNpolitics.com is where you can get some more information on what's going on in this truly incredible race for the White House. Our coverage will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back, everybody. We are minutes away now. You can see both of the podiums set up and ready to go.

We should mention a little bit about the format tonight. Of course, Jim Lehrer of PBS is going to be moderating. The candidates each have two minutes to speak on the various topics and then there is supposed to be about five minutes of debate. What they are going for here is a bit of a free for all between the two so that it's a little less formal, a little more engaging. We'll see if that actually happens.

Back now with the best political team on television. Let's talk a little bit about some of the theatrics and the expectations for what we're going to see in the next few minutes.

Jeff Toobin, Soledad O'Brien was with that focus group down in Ohio a moment ago and she said the vast majority of the people in the room that she was talking to think that Barack Obama is going to win this debate in terms of the expectations. Our own poll showed that 59 percent think he's going to do a better job than John McCain tonight. And what's interesting, I think, is that during the primary debates, he didn't hit it out of the park at any of those debates.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: He didn't do that well.

BROWN: So this can't be helpful to him.

TOOBIN: It can't be although one thing I would make a plea about is I think the whole concept of expectations is bogus. I think that the idea that we, in the news media, decide what people have to do, and he has to do this or he has to do that, I think it elevates our importance. I think we should look --

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Are you saying this media hasn't got it right so far?

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: You're going to get banned from the panel.

TOOBIN: I think (INAUDIBLE).

I just think that this makes us too important. And I think I'm very important but I'm not really that important.

KING: You mean when Senator Clinton and Governor Romney walk out on that stage tonight --

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Go ahead, David.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: But the expectations are a trap here for Obama. I mean, with these high expectations, the fact is that Obama and McCain have been on the same stage twice in the last few months and McCain clearly beat him at Saddleback. I think most people agree that was a very clear, compelling victory.

And then they were together about 10 days ago at Columbia University on the national service evening. I happened to be in the hall and I can tell you that it was at best a tie for Obama -- at best a tie. And I knew many Obama people said, wow, McCain is much better on his feet than Obama is in this kind of setting.

So, the other part of this is this five-minute exchange, that's unprecedented in these presidential debates. It's usually more like a press conference. That gives the opportunity for each candidate to be quick on his feet and repartee, and McCain has something special going for him. He has more of a sense of humor in public than Obama has displayed. And humor works marvelously well just as President Reagan.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He's a street fighter. He's a street fighter, and Barack Obama is a constitutional lawyer. And he is all about nuance and in this kind of sessions, nuance doesn't work.

BROWN: Anderson, it's right, though. Temperament is a big thing. You always hear about Obama coming off as a little too cool. McCain sometimes coming off as a little too hot. I mean, it's how they come across ultimately that can be the deciding factor.

COOPER: I'm also curious to know how long this debate tonight really has an impact. I mean, this race has been changing if not every day every couple of days. The race that is being run this week is completely different than just two weeks ago.

The world has changed and so, I'm wondering if -- I mean, we made such a big deal about Obama's acceptance speech in that stadium. That seemed to have an impact for about 24 hours and then Sarah Palin came along. So I mean, does this last beyond this weekend when we refocus on the bailout?

TOOBIN: There's a brilliant analysis on the fantastic Web site 538.com, going back through all the recent debates and all the recent elections that says these debates are much less of a big deal than you think. That there are brief ups and downs but, in fact, they go back.

I'm offending you over and over again, Gergen. What am I saying?

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: Let me let John King jump in here, sorry.

KING: This has been a race that changes from hour to hour if not day- to-day or week to week. But there are many out there and both parties who do look at this race a lot like 1980 when the first debate did matter. When Governor Reagan convinced the American people he was not risky. Enough of them. He was not risky. They need not to be frightened. He was ready to be president.

A lot of Democrats think and a lot of Republicans worry that if Barack Obama can cross that threshold tonight, this race will break and here's why. If you look at that 10 percent that is out there, that have said they have not made their mind and assume some others are still soft and is larger than 10 percent universally available, so that 10 percent, most of them are soft Democrats or independents. So soft Democrats are inclined to vote Democratic. Independents in 2006 broke dramatically for the Democrats and that's why the Democrats now run the Congress.

If you assume those people out there are inclined to vote for a Democrat, as long as they think the candidate is safe, then Barack Obama has a huge advantage going into the last five weeks of this election if he can perform in these debates.

BORGER: And to the commander in chief question, I just got an e-mail from somebody in the McCain campaign that starts out, "hey, CNN," to the extent that the debate goes the foreign affairs route, remember that Barack Obama has a large commander in chief deficit to make up for. They believe that's clearly their ace in the hole here.

BROWN: OK. Let me take a quick break and throw it over to Wolf who has some news report from Mississippi -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Campbell, thanks very much.

Over by the way at the debate at Ole Miss, they're just introducing the wives of the candidates there right now. Cindy McCain is there. Michelle Obama is there. And they're getting some applause right now. Well, there she is.

Actually, let's listen in for a second. No, we're not going to listen, in. They were just introduced, but we'll show you the picture.

We are getting some information from Abbi Tatton as well, our internet reporter.

Abbi, you know, after the debates they usually go out pretty quickly and they celebrate the various campaigns. What's going on? What happened today?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, this is something that happened earlier and a little bit of post-debate celebration, only it happened about 12 hours before the debate even began.

"McCain wins debate." This was an online ad that readers of the "Wall Street Journal" Web site saw this morning paid for by the McCain/Palin campaign. It says this is a screen grab from "The Washington Post." This ran not only at a time before the debate had started, but it ran at a time when we didn't even know for sure whether John McCain was going to be at this debate tonight, let alone who is going to win. McCain campaign spokesman explaining this was a "Wall Street Journal" error. We'll certainly be looking to see what ads they're running in the next couple of hours -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Abbi, one more thing, viewers in the United States and around the world, they can get involved and they could chat with us. They can weigh in. How do they do that?

TATTON: Wolf, this is something I really wanted to point out to viewers. CNN.com/forum. We set this up as a place where you can go and weigh in in realtime about what you're hearing as the debates happen.

You have to go on set up a political profile here. What kind of voter are you? What issues are important to you? Who are you supporting at this point if anybody? After that, you're set up, you're ready to talk.

People have been weighing in all afternoon. One of the main things they're saying is they know the debate is supposed to be about foreign policy, but a lot of people here want to hear about these economic issues -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we know, Abbi, that supporters of the campaigns of the two candidates, they're having watch parties all over the country right now. Tens of millions of people will be watching.

I want to go to Roland Martin. He's joining us from one of those watch parties with the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington. Ted Rowlands is in a GOP watch party out in Las Vegas.

But, Roland, I know that -- I think it's fair to say all those members of the Congressional Black Caucus, I think all of them support Barack Obama, as do you. Set the scene for us. What's going on where you are?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, first, this is the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. They have been very clear to repeat that over and over and over again that they're sort of nonpartisan event. It's a public policy initiative.

But look, there's a close relationship in the Congressional Black Caucus. There's no doubt. In fact, you know, we were doing some reporting yesterday looking for some black Republicans to interview for my CNN special tomorrow and let's just say it was real difficult for us to find just one. So there's no doubt.

So what you have is a viewing party here. Expect about a thousand some odd people to be here. The panel going on right now - the Tom Jonah (ph) -- the Tom Jonah (ph) morning show. He's hosting as well.

And so, their idea is to really drive this whole voter registration issue. Simple (ph), Wolf, there was something you said earlier in terms of this whole expectation game. Here's what interesting.

Senator Obama is a great speech maker, a weak debater. You look at Senator McCain, a weak speech maker but a strong debater. And so, I think this is really a matter of how do you bring those two together in this kind of format? That's what I'll be watching in terms of style as well as substance.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to come back to you after the debate, Roland. Stand by.

Ted Rowlands is in Las Vegas watching with a bunch of Republicans. Set the scene over there, Ted.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Wolf, these folks are not persuadable. These are McCain backers in Nevada. This is a swing state. It's up in the air.

We are going to watch them. Watch the debate. See what moves them. See what they think is important. They say they're looking forward to see both candidates side by side so they could see the separation of issues. We'll tell you what they think about all of this after the debate.

BLITZER: And what's going on there in Las Vegas and Washington going on all over the country.

Let's walk over to our analysts over here. They're getting ready, getting excited.

Bill Bennett, how excited are you?

BENNETT: I am really excited. You know, the founders said it is the American people who have this opportunity to choose their leaders by reflection and choice, you know. And it really was pretty unique in the 18th century. Now, it's more widespread.

But this is what we do. We have a debate and we have these meetings. We have meetings in homes. We have all the stuff coming in on the Internet, but it's the same principle. It's really a great thing.

And they also said in the selection of a president, what we will look for more than anything else, what the American people will look for is the character of the person. It will be a character test more than anything.

BLITZER: It is the first debate. There will be two more for the presidential candidates, Donna, and one vice presidential debate that's going to be next Thursday in St. Louis. But is this first debate the most important?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, Wolf, the conventions are now over. The VP candidates have been selected, so the American people are tuning in tonight to really get another look at these candidates up. There are a lot of voters who are undecided and tonight, this is an opportunity for people to see if they are ready. And we know that tonight people will be looking at both candidates to see if they're up to the job.

BLITZER: What do you think, Alex? As you get ready for this debate, the pressure on these two candidates, I can only imagine what they're going through.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No matter, this is your first time up batting in the World Series and no matter how many times you've been in the situation before, different levels, this is it.

But, you know, different point of view, McCain I think does not necessarily have to win the election tonight. He can't afford to lose this debate tonight. Right now, he's behind and debates are wonderful things for a candidate who's behind because they can be a great leveler. They can bring you up.

You tend to see both candidates on the same stage talking about the same issues. If McCain handles himself well tonight, seriously, then I think he is back in the game and this debate could be a big plus for him.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BEGALA: Debates do matter. I don't know what 90210.com says, but they're wrong. Ronald Reagan was only three points ahead of Jimmy Carter and in their only debate, it was seven days before the election, so it mattered more. He broke it open into a landslide.

I can go on to take it to President Bush looking at his watch. But, you know, these matter more than any of them because we don't have an incumbent president or vice president on the ballot for the first time. Almost every presidential election is about whether the party in power is doing a good job. As partisan Democrats are trying to say McCain is Bush, but setting that aside, there's no incumbent up there on that stage and there always has been since 1956. I think that makes these debates more important than any that we've seen.

BLITZER: All right. We're getting ready for the debate, but there's some sad news that we reported earlier. John King has got an update for us on what's going on with Senator Ted Kennedy. We know he was taken to the hospital in Cape Cod earlier.

John, what do we know?

KING: We are told, Wolf, now that Senator Kennedy has returned home from Cape Cod Hospital to his compound in Hyannis Port and his staff says he plans to watch the debate tonight. He was taken there after a 911 call was placed from the Kennedy compound taken by the fire department to Cape Cod hospital after having a seizure at his home.

Aides say they believe it was because of a change in medication. They say he was alert and conscious the whole time. He was treated by doctors and he's back home tonight.

Senator Kennedy, of course, had surgery in June for a brain tumor. He has said even though he has this brain cancer, Wolf, that he plans on being back in the Senate in January. He is home tonight after the scare. We are told he is doing well, and the staff believes it was just a minor scare. So we certainly wish him well. We hope he's watching.

BLITZER: We hope he does just fine. We know he's watching.

All right. John, thanks very much.

Campbell, Jim Lehrer, the moderator of the debate tonight from PBS, he's giving some instructions. He's telling the audience what to expect a little bit. But there's no doubt that this is a moment that the whole country I think, it's fair to say, is waiting for.

BROWN: Absolutely, Wolf. And a more free wheeling debate as we talked about a few moments ago than we've seen in the past. But as Christiane pointed out, nothing like some of the debates you've seen in Europe where --

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. It's kind of a misnomer debate despite this kind of five minutes they're going to have. In the French presidential debate, Nicolas Sarkozy debated Segolene Royal around the table like this, just the two of them one at each end, two correspondents who only threw out the questions and then they basically went mano a mano (ph) for over two hours. And it was riveting. It was riveting in terms of substance, temperament, character and very, very good television.

BROWN: And able to get into Michael Ware, I think some of the nuance that we talked about especially on issues like Iraq, which is very difficult to ask these candidates to do when they're asked to give two or three-minute answers.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And surely we are at the point where we're beyond sound bites. I mean, the American public unless I'm reading them wrong --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michael, you've really been gone from America.

(LAUGHTER)

WARE: Yes. It's just one too many -- nothing like a front line to make it real. But, you know, I think America's hungry for something real.

I mean, aren't we tired of this (INAUDIBLE), I mean, this veneer? I mean, people want a real conversation. We want to know what we're really getting.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We'll see.

WARE: So let's actually -- let's actually hear from these people.

BROWN: Well, we might tonight. Who thinks we will? Gloria?

BORGER: I do, I do. I mean, look, we've had how many debates during the primaries where you had candidates really going at each other in some of those debates including ours.

COOPER: I also think given what's going on in the last week, people -- I mean, people -- it's down to brass tacks and people, you know, their livelihood is at stake and they want to hear answers.

BROWN: Such an important point.

GERGEN: I think we're going to have what? Four and a half hours with these two candidates in the room, and I think that's going to be very helpful in terms of voters. The real problem, Michael, is that the candidates so far have not talked about the big stories that you should be covered.

BROWN: All right.

WARE: Yes.

BROWN: David, I got to interrupt you. We're going to take a quick pause to have everyone join us before we begin this debate. Let's pause for one moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)