WASHINGTON (AP) – Democrat Barack Obama studied and practiced privately with aides in a Florida hotel Tuesday in the first of three days of intense preparations for his upcoming foreign policy debate with GOP rival John McCain.
Debates are one of the few times when presidential campaigns loudly tout the skills of their opponent over their own candidate’s abilities, and both campaigns were playing that age-old game of downplaying the expectations about their man ahead of Friday’s event.
“Have no doubt about the capabilities of Sen. Obama to a debate. He’s very, very good,” McCain told voters in Ohio. “He was able to defeat Sen. Hillary Clinton, who, as we all know, is very accomplished. He was able to, with his eloquence, inspire a great number of Americans. These will be tough debates.”
Obama spokesman Bill Burton delivered similar compliments right back at McCain, even less subtly.
“Given his decades in Washington, John McCain literally has more experience debating than anyone who has ever run for president,” Burton said. “If he can’t show the skills he’s acquired debating foreign policy, it will be a massive disappointment.”
McCain is showing more confidence with a full schedule this week that leaves less time for preparations. His advisers said they saw no reason to clear his calendar to prepare, given the Arizona Republican’s decades-long experience on foreign affairs issues and his years of debating colleagues in the Senate.
McCain plans to work with advisers on the debate between campaign events this week in Ohio and Michigan, meetings with world leaders in New York for the United Nations General Assembly and briefings on the Wall Street crisis. He also plans to meet with Bono, the rock star and humanitarian, and appear on the “Late Show” with David Letterman.
The debate is being held at the University of Mississippi. With Mississippi firmly in the McCain column, Obama went to Florida, a nearby battleground state, to prepare – at the luxury Belleview Biltmore golf and spa resort in Clearwater.
Among the staff helping are senior advisers David Axelrod, Anita Dunn and Robert Gibbs, with Washington lawyer Greg Craig playing the role of McCain. Craig, a foreign policy expert and member of President Clinton’s impeachment defense team, also played President Bush in John Kerry’s preparations in 2004.
One goal will be to make sure Obama gets to the point quicker than he tended to in the primary debates, an aide said. The often loquacious Illinois senator has been delivering snappier soundbites recently on the campaign trail at the encouragement of his campaign advisers.
Obama is planning to venture outside the hotel to get local media coverage while he’s in Florida. He began his visit with a news conference, has a rally planned for Wednesday, and aides say other outings to meet locals are possible.
Associated Press writers Liz Sidoti in Washington and Christopher Wills in Clearwater, Fla., contributed to this report.