Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 17:03 UK

Who will show best in the US debate?

John McCain and Barack Obama during previous campaign speeches
A debate is scheduled between John McCain and Barack Obama

After days of uncertainty when it appeared Republican candidate John McCain would miss the first presidential debate because of the battle of the bail-out in Washington, he has now confirmed he will take part. The BBC's Jamie Coomarasamy examines the strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates.

For someone who has built so much of his reputation on his public speaking ability, Barack Obama can, at times, be a curiously ineffective debater.

If you don't believe me, ask the Democratic candidate's own communications director, Robert Gibbs.

He joked to a group of reporters earlier in the week that his candidate often takes 60 seconds to clear his throat.

There was, of course, some gamesmanship there, a deliberate lowering of expectations ahead of the debate, but the assertion is grounded in truth.

By general consent, the Illinois senator was frequently overshadowed in those early, primary debates by his rival, Hillary Clinton.

Slow improvement

Her replies were crisper, more focused. His tended to be considered, thoughtful, but often lacking directness.

US troops near Tikrit, Iraq
Foreign policy, including Iraq, will be on the agenda
And, while Mr Obama's debating style clearly improved over the course of the long primary season - especially during the head-to-head debates with Senator Clinton - Democrats worry that their nominee might revert to the kind of elliptical replies which may suggest to some that he is too much of an intellectual, too devoid of fire in his belly to be president.

Since the start of the general election campaign, some of his supporters have wondered aloud whether he has been simply too cool at times.

Getting overheated during debates can be a turn-off for the watching public - it's not very presidential, after all - but they do want to get a sense of their future leader's passion.

And of his knowledge.

The Obama campaign was instrumental in changing the topic of the first debate to foreign policy.

It is one of the areas where their candidate still needs to prove that his judgement is an effective counterweight to his relative lack of experience.

Financial experience

Although he will be able to argue that in plenty of areas, his long-held positions have been vindicated by events - the growing threat from Afghanistan, for example - he will no doubt have to defend his late and rather grudging acknowledgment that the US troop surge in Iraq was a success.

Wall St sign
Questions about the US financial crisis will test both candidates

It was a policy which he opposed and which his Republican opponent, John McCain, supported, at considerable political risk.

For Senator McCain, the rather uncomfortable fact is that the foreign policy questions look set to be interspersed with economic ones.

The current economic crisis has not been kind to the Republican candidate's opinion poll ratings.

Although he has argued that his economic experience and knowledge have been unfairly belittled, he is clearly on less comfortable ground when talking about financial issues.

Grimace or grin?

To add to his concerns, Mr McCain's debating skills are, it must be said, uneven.

He can be impressively direct, spontaneous; sometimes displaying a biting wit that can unnerve his opponents.

But he can look awkward, too. Who can forget his grimace, following his vow during the primary debates, to follow Osama Bin Laden "to the gates of Hell"?

Yet, when it comes to foreign policy matters - the meat of the debate - he will have a long career to draw on for examples.

Rehearsals have been held for the debate at the University of Mississippi
Rehearsals, using stand-ins, have been held despite doubt over the debate
The Arizona senator is hardly camera shy, but he prefers his questions to come from members of the public, rather than professional interviewers.

In fact, as he has tended to remind people recently, he offered to hold 10 town-hall meetings with Mr Obama during the course of the campaign. It was an offer which the Obama camp rejected.

While the claims and statements of the two men will be picked over, so too will their body language.

Even more so, perhaps - if past debates are anything to go by. Viewers will be looking out for the sorts of nervous ticks, which betray candidates' uneasiness or irritation.

And what of the choreography?

Will the 72-year-old Mr McCain, who bears the physical scars of his time as a prisoner of war, look old, awkward and ponderous next to his much younger opponent, or will he come across as more experienced, more heroic, more...presidential?

And if he does make one of his spontaneous gestures to the crowd, will it provoke grimaces or grins?

And in this strangest, most unpredictable of elections, another question comes to mind: Will the debate itself come to be seen as less important than the debate over whether it would be held at all?

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