Tonight at 9 PM Eastern, the first of the 2012 Presidential debates will take place at the University of Denver. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will debate incumbent President Barack Obama in what many see as the most anticipated first debate in some time.
Romney comes in slightly trailing the President and vying for some kind of moment to knock the Obama out of his lead. The conventional wisdom seems to be that debates rarely make that much difference, accept when something unusual or dramatic happens. Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” line against Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis’ timid answer on the death penalty, or President George H.W. Bush’s glancing at his watch as Bill Clinton made an emotional appeal to a voter. These unscripted moments are what might make tonight’s debate matter.
In debates that include a sitting President, the challenger usually gets a bump due to the fact that he’s on the same stage as the leader of the free world. However, that only provides the spotlight. What Romney does with that time in the spotlight is what will determine how effectively he takes advantage of this opportunity.
President Obama comes into these debates with a slight lead but his advisors are feverishly trying to downplay expectations on the off chance Romney does well and wins the debate. They have made comments building up Romney’s debating prowess and experience and saying how difficult it is to be a sitting President in these forums. Playing the expectations game isn’t new or surprising, and the Obama team is taking no chances.
The debate will focus on domestic issues, which should also give the Obama team pause. It’s there that Romney would have the most chances to attack the President on his handling of an economy that’s still sluggish. Some politicos have stressed Romney’s need to look more human and conciliatory, while others have stressed a need to attack Obama and forcefully make the case that he is not the right man for the job.
In the 90 minutes the two men will have tonight, one thing is certain: This will be the first opportunity for tens of millions of Americans to see and hear, unfiltered, unedited, the men who vie to be their leader the next four years.