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.
1. Be aggressive in explaining to voters why Mitt Romney is not the man for the job. He needs to draw on specific examples. Expect to hear the now-infamous "47 percent" remark come up, as well as criticism of Romney's plan for tax cuts that would benefit wealthy Americans. Romney has proposed a reduction in individual income-tax rates, and the elimination of the estate tax, as well as a reduction in the corporate tax rate. He's said he'd pay for tax cuts by closing loopholes, but he has yet to specify exactly which loopholes he would close.
2. Explain how he plans to get the economy moving. While they may not trust Romney or find him relatable, many voters see his financial background as an asset. Obama needs to clearly explain how he plans to reduce unemployment and create jobs. Expect to hear Obama tout the success of the auto bailout and emphasize Romney's original opposition to it. Hispanic unemployment has remained more than two points above the national average for months. Hispanics were also hit especially hard by the foreclosure crisis, so while Obama is expected to get two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, he'll have to convince voters he's capable of lowering unemployment to do that.
3. Address key voting blocs. Offer a plan to move the DREAM Act forward. He's won praise from undocumented immigrants for granting some youth deferred action, but many say it's not enough. As Univision's Jorge Ramos reminded Obama in September, "A promise is a promise." Obama didn't keep his vow to back an immigration bill during his first year as president. And one Latino voter participating in an ABC/Univision Google Hangout said 2016 will be "the year" for Republicans if Obama is reelected and fails to pass true reform, so the pressure is on him to convince voters he means it when he says he'll pass immigration reform.
1. Be relatable. Romney needs to rehabilitate his image. The unveiling of the "47 percent" comment came at a bad time for a campaign struggling to paint its leader as regular and likable. Romney is effusive and warm when he talks about his grandkids, and he's even been known to crack a joke or two, but he's also prone to clamming up and appearing distant, even cold. As much as he might not like it, likeability matters, and polls show he's not winning in that category. The debate could be an ideal platform for this, provided Romney appears at ease and engages with viewers. We saw a glimmer of this at the Republican convention when Romney talked about his role as a father and grandfather.
2. Hit Obama hard on the economy. He needs to point out that the unemployment rate has lingered above eight percent since Obama took office, and pressure Obama to explain why.
3. Get into specifics about key issues. (Seriously, any issues.) Romney trails Obama among Latinos and much of the gap comes from uncertainty regarding his policies. Take immigration. Latinos are especially concerned with specifics regarding Romney's immigration policy. He has vowed to veto the DREAM Act, but it was unclear whether he would continue the recently enacted deferred-action policy until this week when he told the Denver Post he won't revoke it. His promise to replace the policy before it expires, however, is still vague. He needs to specify exactly what he means when he says he'll pass a "permanent solution" for DREAMers. He has voiced support for allowing undocumented immigrants who have served in the military to remain in the country.