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McCain's last stand at final debate?

  • Story Highlights
  • Final presidential debate takes place Wednesday at Hofstra University
  • The economy will undoubtedly be issue No. 1, along with domestic issues
  • McCain says Ayers-Obama connection will probably come up in the debate
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From Ed Hornick
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The third and final presidential debate is shaping up to be a make-or-break appearance for both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, one of the last chances to get their message out to undecided voters.

The debate, taking place at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, begins at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday and will be aired live on CNN and CNN.com.

The 90-minute face-off will undoubtedly focus on the economic crisis plaguing the country.

And unlike at the other two debates, the candidates will sit at a table facing one another.

CBS News' Bob Schieffer, host of "Face the Nation," will moderate the debate and told The Associated Press on Sunday that he will be seeking more on what each will bring to the presidency.

"By now, we've all heard their talking points," he said. "We've heard the general outlines of what they are talking about. The time has come to be a little more specific."

Schieffer said he's not reluctant to get both candidates to stick to the question. Video CNN's Ed Henry previews the last debate »

"It will not embarrass me, if they go off in a different direction, to say, 'excuse me, could you focus on the question that I just asked?' " he said.

The veteran journalist last moderated a debate in the 2004 presidential race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

A Hofstra University official said Tuesday that both candidates have made interesting demands.

Both campaigns, for example, have requested that an air-conditioning vent be placed above their candidate in order to prevent sweating, and the Nixon-Kennedy debate could be the reason.

In the 1960 presidential debate with John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon's excessive perspiration and 5 o'clock shadow became fodder in the media and arguably one of the more memorable moments in debate history. Video Watch "John McCain" vote for Obama »

Another demand cited by the official: Both candidates are demanding a water glass, and not just any glass. They want an exact replica of water glasses used at the previous debates.

As the clock ticks down to the debate, both candidates are in full preparation mode.

Obama, according to spokeswoman Linda Douglass, is preparing for the debate at a resort in Toledo, Ohio, and staying in touch with his team of economic advisers.

Advisers say that as the debate nears, Obama gets a sense of calm, turns off his cell phone three hours ahead of time and just focuses.

McCain, according to his campaign, will make final debate preparations Tuesday night into Wednesday in New York.

For McCain, the last debate could be a decisive moment in the final stretch of the campaign season.

CNN political editor Mark Preston said the debate is likely to be for McCain, the self-described underdog in the race, a "last chance to reach tens of millions of people with his vision for America."

"He needs a game-changer," Preston added.

The key for Obama is to avoid any gaffes. If he comes out of the debate unscathed, political analysts have said, he'll be in a good position to hold his lead over McCain. Video Watch analysts weigh in on the stakes for each candidate »

Obama was largely seen as the winner in the past two debates, according to CNN polls taken immediately afterward. Read more on the polls

Former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, who has been a strong supporter of and surrogate for the Arizona senator, said Tuesday that McCain simply needs to "be himself" in Wednesday's debate.

"I think John ... is himself, and he will be tomorrow. I think he has been throughout the campaign," he said on CNN's "American Morning." "He's got to remind us about national security. In our concern about the economy, we can't forget about the fact that we're still involved with the threat of terrorism. Video Watch more on the candidates and the economy »

"And then he's got to contrast himself with the lack of experience with the other side," he added.

Recent polls show that McCain is trailing his Democratic counterpart in several Republican-leaning states, including Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia, all states that Bush easily won in the 2004 race.

Giuliani said McCain should hit Obama on his connection to William Ayers, a member of the 1970s radical group Weather Underground, which was responsible for bombings at the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon.

Ayers, now a university professor, has met several times with Obama since 1995, when both worked with a nonprofit group trying to raise funds for a school improvement project and a charitable foundation.

CNN's review of project records found nothing to suggest anything inappropriate in the volunteer projects in which the two men were involved.

McCain and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin appear to have dropped the subject after a week of criticism that their supporters are going over the top with controversial comments.

But McCain said he'll probably bring it up in the Hofstra debate.

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"I was astonished to hear him say that he was surprised I 'didn't have the guts' to do that, because the fact is, the question didn't come up in that fashion," McCain said of the last debate. "I think he's probably ensured it will come up this time."

McCain made clear that he still thinks it's an issue. "It's not that I give a damn about some old washed-up terrorist and his terrorist wife, who in 2001 said they wish they'd bombed more. What I care about, and what the American people care about, is whether he's being truthful."

CNN's Ed Henry and Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

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