THE EXPECTATIONS GAME…. Believe it or not, the first presidential debate is next week. With that in mind, the drive to set expectations is on.

Four years ago, the Bush campaign knew exactly how to play the game. Matthew Dowd, the Bush-Cheney campaign’s chief strategist, told the Washington Post that John Kerry “is very formidable, and probably the best debater ever to run for president.” “I’m not joking,” Dowd added. “I think he’s better than Cicero,” the ancient Roman orator.

The goal, obviously, was to build up expectations that Kerry couldn’t meet. It’s common sense — partisans on both sides want the public to expect their guy to be average and other guy to be great.

I found it odd, then, that Frank Donatelli, the deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, seemed to have this backwards while talking to the National Review.

“Starting early next week, I think you’ll see a lot of interest in Friday’s debate. It may draw the highest numbers we’ve ever seen, and I think that for the v.p. debate, you’ll see a tremendous amount of interest. We feel good about that. Senator McCain is much better at giving answers off the cuff, and Obama has some trouble when he doesn’t have his teleprompter.”

I see this a lot in far-right circles, this notion that Obama is a clumsy speaker when he doesn’t have a teleprompter. It seems like a silly thing to say given that Obama tends to do extremely well with a teleprompter, while McCain is pretty clumsy whether he has a teleprompter or not. Indeed, if Obama needed a script to get through a debate, voters might have noticed over the course of dozens of debates during the Democratic nominating process.

But more importantly, the RNC’s message actually helps the Obama campaign by raising expectations for McCain and lowering them for Obama.

As Oliver Willis, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, put it, “Folks, this is panic time! Sen. Obama might not even be able to form words as Sen. McCain verbally pounds him to a bloody pulp. It’s gonna be a moider. Remember, Barack Obama simply cannot debate without a teleprompter. John McCain will talk circles around him. Make sure you tell that to everyone you know. Oh, and make sure they tune into the debate.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.