THE EXPECTATIONS GAME…. On route to Mississippi, a reporter asked McCain campaign advisor Mark Salter what John McCain hopes to accomplish in tonight’s debate. Salter said, “To do well against a guy who’s a pretty good debater, show presidential leadership, and be able to speak directly to the American people about what he believes.”

Wait, Salter described Obama as merely a “pretty good debater”? No, no, no. That’s not how the Expectations Game is played at all. Four years ago, the chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign said John Kerry is “probably the best debater ever to run for president.” He added, “I’m not joking. I think he’s better than Cicero,” the ancient Roman orator.

That’s how you play the Expectations Game.

To that end, the Obama campaign understands the rules so well, it released a memo this afternoon blasting Obama for being a lousy debater.

“According to the pundits, McCain’s debating skills are unparalleled,” the memo says, “and the expectations for him tonight are sky-high.”

Now, I promise, there are not many Obama staffers who think that McCain’s skills are unparalleled. But what they just did is make you think that McCain is Cicero. And if for some reason, he is merely good, not but not historic, it would somehow be disappointing.

This is normal from campaigns; set the bar high for your opponent. What I never remember seeing is a campaign going out of its way to slam its own candidate. In this same Obama campaign memo are a number of clips quite critical of Obama, including this humdinger from an Associated Press article: “For a man known as a powerful speaker, Obama has rarely wowed people in political debates. He can come across as lifeless, aloof and windy.”

It’s the one time all year when the campaign is going to go out of its way to trash the skills of its own candidate.

The Obama campaign memo added:

Already declaring victory before the debate has even started, in ads running on the Wall Street Journal website, John McCain meets Barack Obama tonight to debate foreign policy — McCain’s professed area of expertise.

The centerpiece of John McCain’s campaign has been his more than a quarter century of experience in Washington learning about and debating foreign policy. If he slips up, makes a mistake, or fails to deliver a game-changing performance, it will be a serious blow to his campaign. Given his unsteady performance this week, he desperately needs to win this debate in a big way in order to change the topic and get back to his home turf.

I have no idea if Obama aides actually believe any of this, but at least they’re playing the game correctly.

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.