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After Doubts, Debate To Go Ahead

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And with those bailout negotiations continuing here in Washington, both John McCain and Barack Obama are in Oxford, Mississippi, where tonight they will debate for the first time. We're joined now by NPR's Don Gonyea and Scott Horsley who are both in Oxford and Scott, let's start with you. What persuaded John McCain finally that he should reverse course, go ahead with this debate when he said he wouldn't?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, Melissa, it was touch and go. Late this morning, John McCain was still in Washington working the telephones and meeting in person with his fellow lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He says now, that he is optimistic that lawmakers have made significant progress towards a bipartisan agreement. And that in particular, House Republicans like Congressman Cantor who had been the biggest holdout now have a seat at the table in the negotiations.

Now, that's a lower standard than what he'd been demanding earlier this week to take part in the negotiations. And to the extent that there has been that progress - it's not really clear what roles Senator McCain's trip to Washington may have played in getting there. But, the story the campaign wants to tell is that his personal intervention is what helped set the stage for this renewed negotiations. Democrats tell a different story. They say that John McCain's presence was little helpful or maybe even counterproductive.

BLOCK: Right. And Don Gonyea, with the Obama campaign, I'm assuming that is exactly the message you're hearing?

DON GONYEA: Exactly. And, you know, it's interesting that the question is did this, you know, help or hurt either candidate. With Senator Obama, perhaps it had the potential to hurt at one point, but only if it had had helped John McCain. And that doesn't seem to have happened at least in the near term as we watched how it plays out and if it helped Obama it was because it did allow him to portray, you know, the sense of calm throughout.

Even on a day that the New York Times headline today called the day of chaos that gripped Washington, and he always maintained that the best thing that the American people could see is these two candidates, side by side on a stage in Oxford, Mississippi discussing this issue, discussing their plans for the future of the country because one of these two guys will be the president elect in less than seven weeks.

BLOCK: What can both of you tell us briefly about how these candidates have been preparing for this debate tonight? Don, let's start with you.

GONYEA: Well, Senator Obama had initially had Tuesday through Thursday down in Florida - in Tampa, Florida, where they would go through mock debates, where they would, you know, come up with possible questions, possible answers, anticipate what John McCain would say, dissect their own answers, plan their own responses, they lost a full day of that. They really lost about a day and a half of that, so just, you know, flatly there was less time to prepare, at least less time than they had budgeted. That said, Senator Obama has had 20 debates this year while going back to late last year starting at the primary season, so he's done this a lot. They feel he has a solid command of the issues, he's watched John McCain enough. They've watched John McCain on the stump. They feel like they're ready even though they lost some time.

BLOCK: And Scott, what about John McCain?

HORSLEY: Well, of course the focus of this debate was to have been National Security which John McCain considers his strong suit. And so, they had never blocked out the big expanse of time to do debate (unintelligible) with the Obama camp had. Aides do say that even during the course of this frantic week, as all this was going on about the rescue plan that John McCain was able to squeeze in some debate prep he did some last night at his home outside of Washington, D.C. He's even doing some debate prep this afternoon and the hours remaining before the debate tonight and we're also told that even as he was working the phones last night and taking time for debate prep, he was able to get to sleep and get some rest at a reasonable hour.

BLOCK: OK. Thanks very much to you both.

GONYEA: All right, a pleasure.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Don Gonyea and Scott Horsley in Oxford, Mississippi, for tonight's presidential debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: All Things Considered continues in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.