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posted: 10/2/2012 10:43 PM

Presidential debate: 8 questions about the high-stakes face-off

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  • A worker helps prepare the set Tuesday for the presidential debate at the Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver in Denver.

    A worker helps prepare the set Tuesday for the presidential debate at the Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver in Denver.
    Associated Press

  • Workers prepare the set for the presidential debate.

    Workers prepare the set for the presidential debate.
    Associated Press

By Dan Balz/The Washington Post

1. What's at stake in the first debate in Denver?

First debates usually attract the biggest audience, and so for both President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, this is a high-stakes event. But it's clearly much bigger for Romney.

The presidential race remains close in a number of national polls, including the latest Washington Post-ABC News survey, which showed Obama ahead 49 percent to 47 percent among likely voters. But recent polls in many of the battleground states show Obama with a larger lead.

Republican strategist Brett O'Donnell notes that both campaigns are now competing for a small slice of undecided voters in the swing states, and he framed the opening debate this way:

"Can Mitt Romney convince those voters that President Obama is to blame for present economic conditions and that things are getting worse, or can President Obama convince voters that we're headed in the right direction and to change now would endanger a fragile recovery? The first debate and the first 30 minutes of the first debate are the most important."

The past few weeks have not been good for Romney's candidacy. Given that Romney has to win virtually all the battleground states to get to 270 electoral votes, the president will walk on stage Wednesday at the University of Denver as the perceived leader. That puts the onus on the challenger to come out of the first debate judged the winner.

As Democrat Tad Devine said of Romney, "He is running out of runway."

Romney is getting tons of advice -- be aggressive, be presidential, attack, offer vision, provide details, show empathy. But there is only so much he can do in 90 minutes. Above all, he needs to emerge from the first debate with a performance that makes voters give him a fresh look_and with new doubts about the president.

2. What are winning debate strategies for Obama and Romney?

The strategy that helped Romney win many of the Republican primary debates isn't the strategy he needs in Denver. In those debates, he tacked to the right against conservative opponents. In this debate, he'll need to reach to the center and hope he doesn't rile his base.

A Republican strategist offered this advice: "He can't be in your face or over the top but has to challenge Obama, show off his knowledge of the economy . . . and get across that he knows what buttons to push, he knows how to fix this and Obama has failed at every turn. No pressure."

Romney also needs to soften an image that took another hit with his comment about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes, whom he said see themselves as victims and have become dependent on government.

"He needs people to wonder if the case against him is so badly flawed that they should reexamine his programs," said Samuel Popkin, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Republican strategist Matt Schlapp outlined Romney's multiple goals this way: "Romney's strategy is to pierce the thin skin of the president and still find a way to improve his favorables. Like Mr. Rodgers with a knife under his cardigan.

Advice for the president is more consistent: avoid looking arrogant, even against an opponent he seems not to respect; avoid engaging Romney; avoid attacking Romney; avoid talking too much about the past. "He doesn't need to score a knockout or even win on points," said Democratic strategist Matt Bennett. "He just needs to avoid a big mistake."

Above all he needs to channel some of the arguments about the economy that former president Bill Clinton made at the Democratic convention. Lynn Vavreck, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, said Obama must make people believe the economy is getting better. "Obama needs to own this growth, slow as it is," she said.

3. Can any debate really change a presidential race?

There are lots of examples of debates that changed the race. So for Romney, the opportunity is there to come out of the first debate with perceptions changed.

Ronald Reagan lost his train of thought in his closing statement in the first debate in 1984, giving Walter Mondale an opening. Al Gore's sighing in the first debate against GOP nominee George W. Bush in 2000 changed perceptions of that race. John Kerry got a head of steam after out-dueling Bush in the first debate in 2004.

Whether debates really change elections is a different question. On this, there are conflicting opinions.

Some analysts say debates can affect the outcome. The best example may be those first televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, in which Kennedy won on style. That may have been enough to tip one of the closest elections in history in his direction.

But many other analysts say debates may change things temporarily but don't really alter the race in the end. They note that Mondale went on to lose by the biggest electoral margin in history, that Kerry had a series of good debate performances but still ended up losing.

"Debates only sometimes move the polls, and they rarely, if ever, decide the winner of a presidential race," said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.

Still, in any close election, which both sides expect this one to be, everything can matter -- television ads, turnout machinery -- even debates.


4. Who is considered the better debater, Romney or Obama?

Romney. Obama. Obama. Romney. Ask the experts, from campaign strategists to political scientists and you get a split decision.

Some of them say that neither is a particularly good debater. They argue that Romney may have won most of the GOP debates this year, but he faced a weak field, while Hillary Rodham Clinton was a better debater than Obama during their nomination contest in 2008.

But both have demonstrated good debating skills, and both got better with more experience during their nomination battles. Romney won the debates that mattered most, and Obama helped seal his victory with a strong performance in his first debate against John McCain in 2008.

Those who give Romney the edge say that's because he's been through so many debates this year that he's fully tuned up. Some see him more disciplined as a debater and less thin-skinned than the incumbent -- although that doesn't mean he can't be thrown on the defensive. Recall his exchanges with Rick Perry in the GOP debates.

Obama, having not debated in four years, may be a little rustier than the challenger. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake noted that Obama is known more for motivational speaking rather than debating.

Those who give Obama the edge say he's well briefed, smooth and, when on his game, unruffled. "Obama stays on message in debates, describes problems and policies in shorthand and smiles while using the scalpel," said Rick Sloan, communications director of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

5. Does the new, more open, format favor either of the candidates?

The first and last presidential debates will feature a more open format. The debates will be divided into six blocks of 15 minutes each. PBS NewsHour Executive Editor Jim Lehrer, who will moderate Wednesday's debate, has already announced the topics for the six blocks: economy, economy, economy, health care, the role of government and governing.

After an opening question and responses from the candidates, the moderators will have the remaining time to dig deeper, prompt direct engagement and pin down someone who tries to slip off the hard questions.

Reed Galen, a Republican strategist, noted that neither candidate "is best when given the opportunity to just talk and talk." But both candidates can try to take advantage of the format to help make their case

A Democratic strategist said he believes the open format gives Obama "more time to pick apart the Romney record." Other Democrats see Obama as better on his feet. Republicans say the format could help Romney look presidential and to come across as warmer and more likable -- a major goal for the challenger.

The second of the three presidential debates will be a town hall meeting format, with most questions from voters rather than the moderator. Bill Clinton used this to his advantage in 1992, after George H.W. Bush was caught on camera checking his watch as if he were in a hurry to finish. In that debate, Bush stumbled over a question about the economy. Clinton stepped forward and did an, "I feel your pain" answer that carried the evening.

Both Obama and Romney have had experience with town hall formats on the campaign trail, if mostly from friendly audiences. The key for both will be to make connections with the audience.

6. How can these encounters produce the "big debate" that both candidates say they want?

This is a big election but it's not been a big campaign. There are major differences between Obama and Romney, and between Democrats and Republicans, as the polarized debate in Washington shows. But small issues and sideshows have often dominated the campaign.

"Let's be serious," Lynn Vavreck said. "Neither of them really wants the 'big debate.' If they did they'd be bringing rhetoric to the campaign that portends a big debate on something important, anything important."

"Lincoln-Douglas was a big debate series," said Steve Murphy. "There are rarely big debates these days. Candidates are not nearly as intellectually honest and they are trained like doctors--first do no harm."

Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate suggested the campaign might become a more elevated debate about government's role, the future of entitlement programs and the best way to assure more robust economic growth.

So far it hasn't happened, and it may be up to the debate moderators to try to prod the candidates to spend less time on stock lines and well-practiced rhetoric and have a real dialogue about the future.

"If [the moderator] stops the candidates from reverting to their talking points and rehearsed attack lines and pivots, it's possible that something resembling a great debate will take place," said Nicole Wallace, who was White House communications director for President George W. Bush.

Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, agreed. "The moderators need to press both candidates to expand on their positions on major issues to get them beyond their talking points," he said.

7. What should we expect from the debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan?

Vice presidential debates are generally about the presidential candidates. The job of the running mates, as Joel Goldstein put it, is to echo the themes of the campaign, attack the opposing presidential candidate and defend the top of the ticket. Along the way, they need to establish their own credentials.

But sometimes these debates are about the running mates as much as the presidential candidates and that's the case this year. Next week's debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) may be as eagerly anticipated as Biden's debate with Sarah Palin four years ago.

Sloan, of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, offered a pithy prediction of the debate: "Verbal shileaghlies at six feet, last solid crack wins."

Ryan comes to the stage with a history of his own as a major intellectual force in the conservative movement. His budgetary blueprint was an issue in the campaign even before he was added to the ticket and it will be an issue in the vice presidential debate.

Biden has been in elective office for almost four decades and there's little he hasn't encountered. But Ryan knows the budget and fiscal issues in ways Biden may not. "I think it will be the first time in history that the Republican candidate will be favored," said Daron Shaw, a professor at the University of Texas.

But Ryan has never been on a stage this big. Biden has four decades of experience and should have the advantage on foreign policy. He handled himself well against Palin. Will he do the same against Ryan?

The key will be when Biden goes after Ryan's budget. Said Democratic strategist Kiki McLean: "Folks will be watching Ryan and looking for any daylight between him and Romney or any effort to protect his own image over Romney's."

Still, as entertaining as it may be, only a total meltdown by one of the two may affect the race. "Even the 1988 debate when (Lloyd) Bentsen knocked out (Dan) Quayle, it did little to change the dynamics," said John Geer, chairman of the political science department at Vanderbilt University.

8. What are Obama's and Romney's most memorable moments from past debates?

Obama and Romney have both been in debates dozens of times during the past five years. The strategists and scholars who offered views for this package cited several for Romney: His Florida debate against Gingrich, when he staggered his opponent by noting that the former speaker also had investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; his skillful destruction of Rick Santorum in the Arizona debate; and of course the bet he dared Rick Perry to take: "Rick, I'll tell you what, 10,000 bucks?"

For Obama, there is but one memorable moment cited by almost everyone, and it wasn't one he should be proud of. It came days before the New Hampshire primary in January 2008 when one of the questioners asked Clinton about perceptions that she was not very likable.

Clinton parried as deftly as should could, pretending to be hurt. Obama tried to offer a bit of encouragement, but what he said came off as snide and condescending: "You're likable enough, Hillary."

His comment no doubt helped cost him the primary and gave Clinton new life. Romney also suffers from perceptions that he's not as likable as the president. Obama should have that moment from 2008 in mind if and when the issue comes up at one of this year's debates.

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