5:43: Naturally, all eyes will be on John McCain at tonight’s debate, to see if he is able to stage a comeback, but there also will be plenty of focus on moderator Bob Schieffer. The past three debate moderators have either been panned for their failure to ask followup questions and really nail down the candidates beyond their standard talking points. But Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill and Tom Brokaw also have been constrained somewhat by the very structured rules, making the presidential debates rigid enough for a high priest. Schieffer has indicated that he will try to change that, and may benefit from a more relaxed atmosphere as the candidates will be sitting with him at a circular table.

5:57: “The one thing that I regret is that my friend Tim Russert couldn’t be here to see this,” Bob Schieffer says on stage, noting that this is “the most exciting campaign that I can recall.”

6:11: John McCain has entered a new figure into the political lexicon that includes Joe Sixpack and Average Joe: Joe the plummer. He’s referring to this man who talked to Obama last weekend. Is there any reason these figures have to be named Joe?

6:14: A lingering question, asked at previous debates, is how candidates will specifically cut spending. Obama says new health care plans and energy proposals will save the government money. McCain turns to increasing home values and energy independence. But he also cites a spending freeze. “We have presided over the largest increase in government since the Great Society.” And he specifically cites subsidies for ethanol, as well as his favorite, earmarks and even the overhead projector at the Chicago planetarium. So far, this debate is sounding quite a bit like the previous one.

6:16: “There’s no doubt the system needs reform and there a lot of screwy things we spend money on,” Obama says.

6:18: McCain zinger, surely rehearsed: “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

6:22: Obama is tilting his head like, Boy, do I have to listen to this again?

6:23: Obama gets a laugh when he cites McCain’s distortion of his record: “Even Fox News disputes it, and that doesn’t happen when it comes to accusations against me.”

6:25: McCain tries to distance himself from Bush, saying, “I’ve got the scars to prove it.” He notes his opposition “to the conduct of the war in Iraq.”

6:26: The tone of the campaign: Obama is smirking as McCain hits him for not accepting his proposal for a series of town halls during the summer. McCain cites John Lewis’ statements that “That to me has been so hurtful.”

McCain says, “I hope that Sen. Obama will repudiate those remarks by John Lewis, very unfair.” In fact, Lewis did not directly compare McCain to George Wallace. He did say that McCain and Palin “are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.

“During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate.”

He later said, “I do not regret what I said. Maybe it could have been said in a different way, because it was not suggesting that John McCain or Sarah Palin was closely related [in] any way to the actions of Governor Wallace.”

6:29: Obama acknowledges the hard feelings, but tries to turn the attention to the economy.

6:31: McCain is really playing the victim card, citing the negative attack ads, but Obama has not brought up any of the McCain ads, like one that accused him of teaching sex ed to children.

6:32: Obama, however, cites things that have been shouted at McCain rallies, including “kill him” and “terrorist” at the mention of his name. McCain says that he can’t be held accountable for “fringe” people and what they say at each rally. He also notes that the campaign put out a statement saying that Lewis should not have compared the McCain campaign to Wallace.

6:36: McCain brings up Ayers and ACORN. “I don’t care about some washed up terrorist,” he says at one point but then says question remains.

6:38: Obama tries to clear the air, with perhaps his argument in defense: The organization on whose board he sat on was funded by Reagan-appointee Walter Annenberg’s foundation, and other board members included the former president of Northwestern University, a McCain donor. (Name: Arnold Weber).

6:40: McCain seems especially angry during this exchange, while Obama seems to struggle not to smile and laugh.

6:43: McCain on Palin: “It is time we have that breath of fresh air coming through the nation’s capital.” “I can’t tell you how proud I am of her and her family.”

Is she qualified?: “I think that is up to the American people,” Obama says.

McCain slams Biden on Iraq, but says he is qualified. He criticizes as cockamaymie Biden’s proposal to divde Iraq into three parts. “We’re seeing Iraqis united as Iraqis.”

6:49: “Sen. Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, opposes the Columbian free trade agreement,” McCain says. “…Free trade with Colombia is a no brainer.”

Obama defends his opposition to the agreement, and note he supported the Peruvian free trade agreement which was better structured.

I’m wondering if Obama wins this exchange given that he has emphasized more protectionism that McCain has.

6:59: Health care: McCain cites the rise of obesity among young Americans, as well as other wellness and fitness. Then he turns and starts talking to Joe the Plummer, directly at the camera. “Sen. Obama wants to set up health care bureaucracies.” I have to say that this whole talk to Joe is kind of bizarre. Obama is addressing Joe too.

7:02: This health care debate is territory covered ad nauseum, except that now it is directed at the ubiquitous Joe. “If you notice in all of our proposals, Sen. Government, Sen. Obama want government to do the job. Sen. Obama, I want you to do the job.”

7:06: “All I want to do is lower your costs, that includes you, Joe,” Obama says.

7:08: “Sen. Obama voted against Justice Breyer and Justice Roberts,” McCain says. A gaffe, as he meant Roberts and Alito. Breyer was confirmed before Obama got to the senate.

“I would certainly not impose any litmus test,” McCain says.

7:09: Obama says it is likely one of us “will appoint at least one if not more to the Supreme Court,” and “Roe vs. Wade hangs in the balance.”

7:11: Op research: McCain essentially hits Obama for “present” votes and votes on abortion issues. Essentially, it’s a long way of suggesting he’s voted to harm kids. Hillary Clinton tread this same territory in the primary, particularly on the “present” votes.

7:14: Obama isn’t exactly lighting the screen on fire, but McCain seems especially tense, as if it is a struggle to move from a positive candidate and a negative one on the attack.

7:16: Education. McCain says of schools, “Throwing money at the problem is not the answer.” This has been one of the struggles of the financial crisis, as McCain’s mortgage plan is a big government solution while he has also argued for smaller government. But he is otherwise emphasizing school choice. Obama, however, says that he agrees with McCain on such things as charter schools. He is also pitching vouchers, and is laying out more of an overarching vision on this issue than other areas in this debate.

7:27: McCain argues, “I have been a careful steward of your tax dollars.” He defines this as an issue of trust, and cites his service to the country.

7:29: “The biggest risk we can take right now is to take on the same failed policies and the same failed politics of the last eight years and expect a different result.”

7:31: Schieffer: “Go vote now. It will make you feel good and strong.”