NASHVILLE — Who does America want at the helm in a time of crisis, an erratic gambler or a dangerous radical?
That's the stark choice being portrayed by John McCain and Barack Obama as they prepare for their second debate Tuesday night — each is looking to frame the other in the darkest possible terms heading into the final month of the campaign.
Obama, having opened a lead and looking to seal the deal, heads into the debate portraying himself as the steady hand of calm leadership and slamming McCain as a knee-jerk hothead ill suited to handle the nation's crises, economic or otherwise.
McCain, looking to stop Obama's momentum, is hammering his rival's ties to controversial characters in Chicago as signs of his radical and unpredictable ways.
As both take aim, their shots are underscored by the continuing turmoil in the markets and fresh warnings Monday that the economy is in for tough times ahead despite Friday's approval of a $700 billion bank bailout.
Indeed, the economy is likely to dominate the questions posed to the two men Tuesday night. The 90-minute debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., will feature questions from a live audience in a town-hall format moderated by NBC's Tom Brokaw. It will be televised nationally starting at 9 p.m. Eastern time.
"In difficult times, people want a sense of calm reassurance," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "Obama, as he did in the first debate, is going to try to come across as calm and reassuring. He's going to hit the economy hard and emphasize that McCain is erratic."
In the days and hours leading up to the debate, Obama was striving to portray McCain as a reckless leader who'd make impulsive, poorly reasoned moves with the country's future.
"Erratic in a crisis," says a new Obama ad of McCain. "Out of touch."
"Sen. McCain and his operatives are gambling that he can distract you," Obama said on Sunday, using the word "gambling" as a red flag to draw some connection between McCain's fondness for casino betting and his alleged style of leadership.
Obama's campaign also launched a new attack Monday on McCain's role in a the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal, named for the head of a failed S&L and the five lawmakers charged with improperly helping him.
A Senate Ethics Committee inquiry ultimately cleared McCain of wrongdoing while rebuking him for "poor judgment."
McCain goes into the debate trailing in national polls and in surveys of many battleground states.
"McCain has to try to convince voters Obama is a risky choice," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Polling Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
While Obama accuses McCain of being reckless, McCain is slamming Obama on taxes, and his running mate Sarah Palin is raising issues of character.
"You're going to learn a lot about who's the liberal and who's the conservative and who wants to raise your taxes and who wants to lower them," McCain said in Colorado recently.
Palin spent the days leading to the debate ripping Obama for his past ties to 1960s radical William Ayers, who's refused to apologize for his role in a group that bombed U.S. buildings to protest the Vietnam War. He's now a Chicago college professor.
Ayers hosted a 1995 campaign reception for Obama and the two men served together in the 1990s on a charity's board. Ayers also advised a separate board that Obama chaired that was concerned with distributing donated money for Chicago schools.
Obama has condemned Ayers' anti-war violence, which occurred when Obama was a child. There's no evidence that the two men are close now, although they live in the same Chicago neighborhood.
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