President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney will face off on Wednesday for the first of three debates in the run-up to the November election.
Millions of Americans are expected to tune in for the debate, which will take place at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. While the two men have been trading barbs for months, this is the first time they will meet face to face as presidential candidates.
In a refreshing departure from political television ads and the obligatory kissing of babies at unplanned campaign stops in American diners, the debates allow voters to see the candidates, for better or worse.
Both Republicans and Democrats have been downplaying their candidate's debate skills with the hope that when they exceed viewers' low expectations, voters will be impressed. But a gaffe, even a small misstep, can seal a candidate's fate.
The pressure is on Obama to perform. A new ABC News-Washington Post poll shows that potential voters expect Obama to win the debates by a 56 to 29 percent margin, meaning even a quarter of Republicans don't expect their candidate to come out on top. And while most Romney supporters have been downplaying expectations, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talked up Romney's debating abilities during a Sunday interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos.
"Every time Mitt Romney has been confronted in this campaign with one of these moments, he has come through in the debate and performed extraordinarily well, laying out his vision very clearly, and also contrasting himself and his vision with whoever his opponent was at the time," Christie said.
This first debate will center around domestic policy. A later town-hall style meeting at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York will include both foreign and domestic policy, while foreign policy will take precedence during the final debate on October 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Vice presidential contenders Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will also square off, debating each other at Center College in Danville, Kentucky in mid-October.
So exactly how important are these debates, and with early voting already well underway in some states, is there really time to sway voters?
In short, yes. The debates provide voters a chance to see the candidates in a (somewhat) unscripted setting, and what the next four years might look like with each at the helm.
Obama has, as president, had multiple chances to do this, but he's also given voters a chance to become disillusioned. He'll have to explain what he plans to change in the next four years. Romney has had more limited opportunities to put forth a comprehensive plan, so the debates are an important forum for getting a clear, relatable message across.
As Robert Draper points out in this month's GQ Magazine, "…debates force these starchy, over rehearsed, vainglorious pontificators to be human, more or less. We need to see them fidget and fume and (maybe) flash some greatness"
Of course it's all worth it to a candidate if he wins. Which brings us back to tomorrow's debate. It's the first one, it's fairly important, and for Obama or Romney to do well, these are the issues they have to address.