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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, Sept. 30, 2012. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, Sept. 30, 2012. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

Obama, Romney set to match wits in first big debate Add to ...

If Mitt Romney had a dollar for every piece of debate advice he has received in recent days, the Republican nominee would be a far richer man than he already is.

The abundance of unsolicited pointers is illustrative of the make-or-break proposition Mr. Romney faces as he takes on President Barack Obama in their first presidential debate on Wednesday. The encounter at the University of Denver could be one of the GOP hopeful’s last chances to reverse the course of a campaign that is steadily trending Mr. Obama’s way.

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As many as 60 million Americans are expected to tune in for the 90-minute debate on domestic issues. Jim Lehrer of PBS, moderating his 12th presidential debate, will lead the candidates through a discussion on the economy, health care and the role of government.

Despite their differences on policy, Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama are similar politicians. Both prefer to talk about facts and figures rather than about what makes them tear up or tick. Both are studies in self-control who prefer written scripts over spontaneity.

The debate could go to the candidate who most forces the other outside his comfort zone.

Who has the most to gain/lose?

Judging by the way each candidate and most of his surrogates have been attempting to play down debate expectations in recent days, neither Mr. Romney nor Mr. Obama wants to be seen as the favourite. In a debate without major blunders by either, a candidate’s failure to live up to expectations could make some voters rethink their support.

“Governor Romney, he’s a good debater. I’m just okay,” Mr. Obama mused at a campaign rally on Sunday before holing up for intensive “debate camp” in suburban Las Vegas, where Democratic Senator John Kerry has played Mr. Romney in practice sessions.

In reality, far more voters are betting on Mr. Obama than on his rival to win the debate. In a Pew Research Center poll released Monday, fully 51 per cent of voters picked the President to “do a better job” in the debate. Only 29 per cent picked Mr. Romney to win. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed a similar result, with 54 per cent picking Mr. Obama to prevail; Mr. Romney was chosen to win by only 28 per cent.

As a result, Mr. Obama has more to lose going into the first debate. He is already ahead in the polls in almost every critical swing state. But as much as that gives him an incentive to play it safe in the debate – sticking to his prepared script regardless of the questions or Mr. Romney’s attacks – he must also ensure he lives up to voter expectations.

“Because he tends to be behind, Mitt Romney has more to gain from the debates,” explained William Benoit, a communications professor and debate expert at Ohio University. Mr. Romney failed to get any momentum from what his campaign hoped would be the first two “pivot points” of the race – choosing his vice-presidential running mate and making a memorable convention speech. That means the first debate, traditionally the most watched of the three, has taken on added urgency for him.

Mr. Romney has an incentive to take more risks, and be more aggressive, than Mr. Obama. The Republican nominee has had plenty of formal debate preparation in recent months – Ohio Senator Rob Portman has played Mr. Obama in those practice sessions – and aides have indicated he has prepared “a series of zingers” to attack Mr. Obama.

Still, the Romney campaign has played down New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie’s Sunday comment, according to which the debate would “change the entire narrative of this race.” Why set expectations you are not sure you can meet?

What are their strengths and vulnerabilities?

With one debate line in 2008 – “You’re likeable enough, Hillary” – Mr. Obama exposed one of his biggest weaknesses. He can come off as smug, never more so than when he is debating someone he does not particularly like. And he reportedly likes Mr. Romney even less than Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

Mr. Romney could try to provoke outbursts of condescension from Mr. Obama, who is still considered the more likeable of the two by voters. That is why Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, writing on CNN.com, had this advice for Mr. Obama: “Stay nice. No ‘You’re likeable enough’ comments; no jokes about dogs on top of the car; no snarking about how rich Romney is; no patronizing lectures when he has his facts wrong.”

That may be a tall order for the President. On the campaign trail, he has repeatedly ridiculed Mr. Romney for once driving to Canada with his Irish setter strapped to the car roof, harped about his rival’s wealth and berated the GOP nominee for playing loose with the facts.

Still, Mr. Obama has an opportunity to solidify the narrative about Mr. Romney as a profit-driven corporate raider. He could slip in references to his controversial record at private equity firm Bain Capital and the emergence of a video in which the GOP nominee slams the 47 per cent of Americans who do not pay income taxes.

Mr. Obama’s biggest challenge will be avoiding putting voters to sleep. He tends to give long, windy replies where short, snappy ones would help him make his point better.

“If Mr. Obama faces any risk in this debate it is taking the bait – slipping back and trying to persuade voters that his first term was successful and the U.S. is on the right track,” Stanley Greenberg, a former presidential debate coach to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, wrote in the Financial Times.

Indeed, Mr. Romney will try to put the President on the defensive. But the GOP nominee must also avoid having to defend his past comments or record, and instead focus on what he intends to do to get the economy moving. Or as Mr. Greenberg put it: “Lay off the welfare state and lay out bold conservative policies to boost business and jobs.”

Though he is stiff on the campaign trail, Mr. Romney was effective during the Republican primary debates, making short shrift of Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich when he needed to. As long as he executed the plan he and his debate coaches laid out in practice, Mr. Romney did well. But his spontaneous remarks, such as challenging Mr. Perry to a $10,000 bet, got him in trouble.

“Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are both better when they’re on script. Neither of these guys is particularly good in the moment,” noted Allan Louden, chair of the communications department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “That could make for a rather staid debate. But my guess is that each is going to try to get the other to go off script for that reason.”

What is the potential impact on the race?

Given the personalities and debating styles of each of the candidates, most pundits are not expecting the Obama-Romney encounters to go down as classics. After all, almost no one remembers Mr. Obama’s duels with John McCain in 2008. Pundits may pine for a major blunder – such as Gerald Ford’s denial of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in 1976 or Mike Dukakis’s impassive 1988 reply to question involving his wife’s hypothetical rape and murder. They should not hold their breath.

“The likelihood that campaigners with this much experience will make huge gaffes is probably very low,” Ohio University’s Prof. Benoit said. “But you don’t need to change attitudes toward one candidate to prevail. You just need to strengthen existing attitudes, making people more likely to vote for you and donate to your campaign. And the first debate usually has a greater effect than the others in this regard.”

Still, unless Mr. Romney is an obvious loser, he could benefit from the media’s desire to depict the contest as a horse race. That is why many Democrats are already warning against the post-debate spin that declares Mr. Romney the winner.

Indeed, winning the post-debate spin cycle has become as critical as winning the debate itself. Mr. Gore discovered that in 2000. The depiction of his performance as full of “sighs and lies” stuck even though overnight polls after the first debate suggested the Democratic nominee was the winner. Mr. Gore went into the debates five percentage points ahead of Mr. Bush but slipped five points behind his Republican rival after the encounters.

If there is an obvious loser on Wednesday night, Prof. Louden suggested he will be able to take consolation in the fact that, in a multi-platform media world, debates may be declining in importance: “Unless something dramatic happens, the afterlife of any debate has been shortened by all the [media] competition.”

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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