President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will square off on Wednesday night in the first of their three presidential debates at the University of Denver in Colorado.
Many see the first debate as the last chance for Romney’s floundering campaign to convince the American voters that the former Massachusetts governor with a stellar business background is the best person to lead the country in the next four years, as it slowly pulls itself out of a prolonged economic downturn.
Moderated by veteran PBS News Hour host Jim Lehrer – who will be moderating a record 12th presidential debate – the first debate will focus on US domestic policy. The second and third debates, on October 11th and October 16th, will cover both foreign and domestic policies.
The Downhill Mitt
In recent weeks, various opinion polls have indicated that Obama has pulled ahead in what was essentially a close race until the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte early last month. An average of various polls compiled by the reputed website Real Clear Politics gives the incumbent president a 4.1% advantage over Romney.
Obama has an even bigger advantage in the so-called swing states, which are expected to determine the election. The president is leading or tied in nearly every one of these battleground states, which include Florida, Ohio and Virginia.
On his part, Wednesday’s debate presents the president with an opportunity to go for the kill – although it is likely that Obama might play it safe, focusing mainly on avoiding gaffes, a tactic candidates who are up in the race normally adopt.
Romney to go for Jugular
There is no question Romney needs a strong debate performance to reshape the race that is slipping away from him, in the absence of which there is a real chance that several of his donors and Super PACs are likely to desert him.
If they are convinced that the candidate is going down, these groups are likely to reallocate the resources to other down ballot races, such as House and Senate battles in an effort to strengthen the Republican Party’s position in Congress in the likely event of second Obama term.
Because of his tricky position, Romney is almost certain to go for the jugular. Candidates behind in the race have used the debates to right the ships, reinvent their campaigns and break the shackles.
After failing to make any big impact in the Republican National Convention, which resulted in no bounce for his campaign, the debates will now give Romney the best opportunity to speak to a huge swath of the electorate. Approximately, half the likely voters are expected to tune in to watch the debates.
Since expectations play a big part in the public’s perception of who had a better night at the podium, both campaigns have been consistently lowering expectations for weeks now. “[We] expect Mitt Romney to be a prepared, disciplined and aggressive debater,” David Axelrod, the president’s chief advisor, wrote in a recent memo, adding that challengers were perceived to have won in the first debates in four of the last five campaigns.
Obama’s Home Turf
Similarly, the Romney campaign has also tried to lower the expectations as much as possible. Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who plays Obama in Romney’s debate preparations, termed Obama a “very effective debater” in an interview.
Since John Kennedy and incumbent Vice-President Richard Nixon faced off in the 1960 race, televised debates have come to define the American presidential elections. There were a lot of question marks over the experience of Kennedy, then a young US Senator from Massachusetts, and his Catholic religion. It was his strong debate performance against Nixon – who looked uncomfortable on television, in sharp contrast to Kennedy’s supremely confident demeanor – that helped the Democrat to capture the White House. The margin of Kennedy’s popular vote victory in that election was a mere 0.2%.
In the past half a century, debates have been great political theatres, providing plenty of memorable moments, with candidates trying hard to score brownie points and put their opponents in their place through one-liners and zingers.
Ronald Reagan, a product of the Hollywood, skillfully used one-liners in his debates against Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in 1980 and 1984, respectively. Warding off an attack on him by Carter, Reagan memorably told the incumbent president, “There you go again!”
One of the most remarkable punch lines in the history of debates was delivered by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen in his 1988 vice-presidential debate against then Vice-President Dan Quayle. When Quayle claimed, “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency,” Bentsen retorted: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Debates are also not just about mastery of issues. In 2000, George W Bush, widely ridiculed as an intellectual lightweight, was expected to be overrun by Vice-President Al Gore, who was considered a masterful debater. Bush was perceived to have won in one of the debates because Gore appeared condescending to the voters, by often rolling his eyes while the Republican was speaking.