For presidential hopefuls, it's called the Expectations Game.

Here's how it's played: Before a debate, rival campaigns build up the skills of their opponents while downgrading their own candidate's verbal abilities. That way, any bright moments make a performance seem like a home run.

For the Democratic contenders, the first major round of the Expectations Game came ahead of Thursday night's debate at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C. The 90-minute event offers eight candidates their initial chance to distinguish themselves on the long road to the nomination next year.

"I've just got to make sure I don't trip walking on the stage," joked Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, who complained that the candidates get no opening or closing statements and that responses to questions are limited to 60 seconds.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama cracked, "It takes me 60 seconds to clear my throat."

Such self-deprecating comments before a debate are common in the Expectations Game. So is anonymous praise.

One of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's rivals tried to set high stakes for her performance by sharing with a reporter a 1990 editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Clinton, as first lady of Arkansas, once turned a news conference staged by her husband's Republican challenger into an impromptu debate. "The tougher Clinton" went on to "mop the marble floor with her husband's opponent," the newspaper contended.

In a similar bit of gamesmanship, an Obama opponent tried to raise the bar for the Illinois senator by pointing out to a reporter that he had been editor of the Harvard Law Review and rose to prominence on the strength of his rhetorical skills. The campaign cited a letter to the editor in The Seattle Times last February that claimed Abraham Lincoln would have lost his election if he had to debate Obama instead of Stephen Douglas.

And a rival camp to former Sen. John Edwards recalled in an e-mail to a reporter his accomplishments as a trial lawyer. Extolling his intense preparations and his ability to win over the jury, the rival provided several news clips hailing his previous debate performances.

Such praise usually ends as soon as the talk begins.

Because of her front-runner status, Clinton could be a target for those trying to get attention. Obama, too, could be a popular mark because of his rise to prominence after just three years in the Senate.

The two leading candidates — Clinton and Obama — will be standing next to each other on stage, based on a random drawing.

So far, the candidates have been relying mostly on indirect criticisms of one another.

"Hope alone is not going to restore America's leadership," Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd said in a speech Tuesday. "Like never before I believe we need national leadership that's ready to lead from Day One."

Dodd denied afterward that he was trying to compare himself to Obama, author of the best-selling book "The Audacity of Hope." But he left it to others to fill in the blanks.

Dodd played down the importance of the debate but said his preparations involved "about 32 years" — the time he's served in Congress.

With his short time on Capitol Hill, Obama was doing much more. His campaign was mum about specifics, but it confirmed that he had spent quite a bit of time preparing.

"I don't do any preparations at all. I'm just going to wing it," Obama said with a smile when asked about it. Then he allowed, "Of course I'm doing a little preparation."

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said she was reviewing notes and going through mock question-and-answer sessions. The campaign sent an e-mail to supporters Tuesday to encourage them to hold debate-watching parties.

"She is going down there prepared to make her case that she has the strength and experience to lead from Day One," Wolfson said.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson planned a full day of debate prep in South Carolina on Thursday. "I'm going to show I'm the candidate who not only has experience, but I've actually done things," he said.

Edwards campaign officials revealed one proposal he was ready to discuss: Calling on President Bush to fire adviser Karl Rove for his alleged role in the federal prosecutor firing scandal.

"NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams was set to moderate the MSNBC debate, which was being hosted by the university and the South Carolina Democratic Party. Special software designed by the network will keep track of how long each candidate gets on the air to ensure equal time.

That's just about 11 minutes per candidate. Long shots like former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich would get just as much time to explain their views as their better-known rivals.