President Obama will square off against Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in a domestic policy debate tonight.
This is the first of 3 debates between the two and likely the one that will be most watched.
Each man has something to accomplish out of these debates. President Obama gets a chance to defend his first term to a national audience and directly engage voters by explaining why he is seeking a second term. Romney needs to demonstrate some energy by attacking Obama and running policy circles around him in explaining his own plans...in detail.
Romney has more riding on these debates that Obama. The President is essentially locked in to 46 - 48% support no matter what. Romney's numbers are more flexible. Right now, a majority of voters view him unfavorably. Many voters say Romney has not been genuine, does not explain his plans, favors the wealthy at the expense of the poor and does not empathize with the common man. He has to change those perceptions fast.
Here are the top 10 things to keep an eye on during the debate:
1) Body Language and Eye Contact. It is always fascinating to see if the two candidates will address each other directly. John McCain never even glanced over at Barack Obama during most of the 2008 debates. Al Gore famously took and aggressive step toward George W. Bush in 2000 only to have Bush head nod back to him. Obama and Romney are fairly stiff people, so don't expect too much aggressive body language or staring down. Still, these men don't like each other personally and it usually makes for interesting interactions during heating exchanges.
2) The Moderator. Moderators are the referee in debates. Jim Lehrer will handle the duties for this first debate in Denver. Lehrer is a veteran moderator who has done this 11 times before. The long time anchor of the PBS Newshour is trusted by the public as well as the candidates. He is known for being fair, but hitting candidates hard with questions and making sure they actually provide some kind of answer. There are a lot of very tough questions to be asked of both men. How hard will Lehrer push to get answers?
3) Issues. This is a domestic policy debate so we know that certain items will come up: the economy, health care reform, the "fiscal cliff" and the national debt are sure to come up. What else will Lehrer hit on? Social issues? Education reform? Immigration? Environmental Issues? The debate format allows for 6 topics in 90 minutes so Lehrer has the tough task of deciding which issues are most important to press the candidates on.
4) Policy. Both Obama and Romney will have ample opportunity to talk about specific proposals tonight. Obama has been slightly more specific than Romney on economic issues like taxes, but not much. Lehrer is likely to pounce on both if they skirt the questions. Hopefully that forces each to get specific about their economic reform agenda and their concepts for handling entitlement reform, military spending and welfare programs.
5) Uh-Oh moments. Will either Obama or Romney make a huge mistake? Obama is extremely careful and not prone to on-camera gaffes. Romney made a few mistakes on the trail so far and was off his game in debates when Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrinch were particularly aggressive. Neither men take criticism well and both get rattled by interruptions. If either makes a big mistake, it could swing the polls.
6) The Audience. Presidential debate audiences are typically very well behaved and respectful. However, candidates try to evoke a laugh or a gasp here or there. How will the Denver audience take to these men
7) The Spin. No matter what happens, the campaigns will spend the all of Thursday trying to explain why their guy won. Media will replay 5 second snippets all day and some will inevitably favor one candidate over the other. A media narrative will develop in the minutes after the debate. Pundits will try to assess winners and losers quickly and those perceptions could stick in the minds of voters.
8) The TV Networks. We know Fox News will say Romney was stellar and MSNBC will praise Obama for his intellect. What about the others? CNN has a very strong political coverage team with both parties represented on various panels. They will be a good source for objective discussion. ABC's George Stephanopoulos often slips into his old partisan days and acts as a cheerleader for Democrats. NBC's Brian Williams is usually fair, but he is surrounded by the MSNBC apparatus that is built to defend the President. CBS News can be pretty thin on post-debate analysis so I am not sure what to expect from them. PBS is very strong on debate night. Their pundits are usually pretty fair.
9) Ratings. How many people are going to watch this debate? The numbers are expected to be good. However, voter enthusiasm is low and viewership may take a hit as a result. There are only a few swing states that still matter in 2008 and the ratings there matter the most. Viewership in the following markets will be closely evaluated by both campaigns: Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Des Moines, Manchester, Denver, Orlando, Tampa/St. Pete, Miami, Washington D.C./Baltimore, Raleigh, Charlotte and Las Vegas. Those are TV markets that reach swing voters in swing states. If they tune in, they may make up their minds tonight.
10) Closing statements. These short soundbites are usually never replayed and only watched by those really trying to decide who to vote for. They can be very powerful, personal statements from the candidates. They don't win or lose debates, but they may swing votes.
While Romney is favored to win the first debate, winning isn't enough. He needs to have an extremely strong, mistake-free performance to make up for a sluggish September.
I will be watching, will you?
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