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 tonight

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — 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 tonight — each is looking to frame the other in the darkest possible terms heading into the final month of the campaign.

Their target audience in the debate: the roughly 10 percent of the electorate who are undecided and an additional quarter who say they might still change their minds before Nov. 4.

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.

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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.

Tonight’s 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 6 p.m. Pacific 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 would make impulsive, poorly reasoned moves with the country’s future.

“Erratic in a crisis,” a new Obama ad says of McCain. “Out of touch.”

“Sen. McCain and his operatives are gambling that he can distract you,” Obama said 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.

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.

In Florida on Monday, Palin cited Obama’s ties to 1960s-era radical William Ayers and to the Democrat’s former pastor, the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

In New Mexico, McCain delivered an unusually scathing broadside. He accused Obama of lying about McCain’s efforts to regulate the home-loan industry. And he suggested Obama is a mysterious figure who cannot be trusted, referring to Obama critically as a “Chicago politician” and arguing that the Democrat says one thing and does another.

Obama, in turn, asserted in North Carolina that McCain was engaging “in the usual political shenanigans and smear tactics” to distract from economic issues, even as his own aides in Chicago assailed the Republican nominee for “an angry tirade” and went after him for his role in the 1980s Keating Five savings and loan scandal.

Some analysts called the change in tone disappointing but predictable. Presidential candidates who are losing on policy issues often turn to character, they said.

Brookings Institution political scientist Thomas Mann said he had felt for months that McCain “would eventually have to try to undermine Obama as an acceptable choice for president and commander in chief.” Key issues, he said, including “an economy in turmoil, an unpopular war and a politically discredited president are working powerfully against McCain and the Republican Party in general.”

The new tone in the race may depress many Americans, but a top independent pollster in the battleground state of Pennsylvania said it’s unlikely to change many minds.

Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College, said, “The economy is so dominant and the change focus so great, I just don’t think voters are going to buy into it.”

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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