President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney face off this week in the first of three debates prior to the November election. It’s a close race and both candidates have done their best to manage expectations heading into Wednesday evening’s performance. But with so much on the line this election, and with debates increasingly staged and strained at the expense of substantive policy battles, what should we expect to see Wednesday night?
This first debate will be hosted by Jim Lehrer of PBS’s Newshour. Lehrer will ask six questions, each followed by 15 minutes of debates between the candidates. Lehrer is a pretty even-keel moderator who has been known to ask difficult questions and press candidates for answers. How much of that we will see this first debate is an open question though.
This first debate will cover domestic policy issues, though that leaves plenty of ground to cover in just a few hours. For Romney, this is dangerous territory. His inconsistencies and outright flops and pandering on Obamacare, the auto-industry bailout and his infamous “47 percent” quote all have him set up for exploitation by a seasoned and polished President Obama.
But there are plenty of traps for Obama to fall into on these issues as well. Despite the popularity of the individual portions of Obamacare, the public still largely buys Republican talking points that health care reform is a drag on business growth. Conservatives will also try and use Obamacare as a wedge to attack the president on religious liberty issues, though this leaves them exposed to the numerous ways in which the GOP has gone after women’s economic rights. And without a doubt Romney’s single greatest task on policy and strategy will be to tie the Obama administration to a faltering economic recovery and claim it’s all his fault.
Whether or not Romney is successful with such a task will largely depend on how vigorously Leher and Obama push him for details and push back against Romney’s own inconsistencies and his record.
For Romney, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Polls have him consistently trailing the president. A poor performance Wednesday night–which could be measured by anything short of a win– could send donors packing it up for Senate and Congressional races they see as winnable.
But that doesn’t mean Democrats can get comfortable now. There’s a month before the election, and this is when many voters finally start paying attention. A poor performance, followed by a Romney-rebound could put Obama on his heels. Given the widespread voter suppression efforts in key swing states and that could be enough to tilt the election.
Photo from VectorPortal via flickr.