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In the first U.S. presidential debate, will Romney deliver under pressure?

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney departs his campaign headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts September 30, 2012.

BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS

When it comes to pre-game talk, the U.S. presidential candidates are involved in an unusual display of talking down their own skills.

"Governor Romney, he's a good debater. I'm just okay," President Barack Obama told a Las Vegas rally Sunday ahead of Wednesday's much-anticipated first televised debate.

Over in the Mitt Romney camp, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was also setting expectations low, telling Fox News Sunday that he doesn't believe "one event is going to make or break the campaign."

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But, in fact, debates matter – and the TV audience for the first of three presidential debates could exceed 60 million viewers.

The Globe invited two strategists – a Republican, who worked with Mitt Romney, and a Democrat, who has worked in the Clinton White House and in presidential campaigns – to share their expectations for what each campaign needs to do this week in order to win the White House on November 6th .

Phil Musser is a GOP consultant and president of New Frontier Strategy. As former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, he worked closely with Mitt Romney, who was the group's chairman.

This week in American politics represents a key pivot point in the campaign, and the debate really matters. In our primaries, debates were ultimately the arbiters of the outcome, as voters judged with their own eyes and made determinations about who should be our standard bearer.

For the Romney campaign, the stakes of the week should be viewed through the prism of three key elements that dictate the success, or lack thereof, of any campaign.

They are what I call the 3 M's of politics: message, momentum, and money. You need all of them in healthy portions at key times to win. This race is no exception.

At the debate, Mr. Romney has a chance this week to make clear progress on all three. Let's examine them.

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Message: One of the raps on Romney's campaign has been that he lacks a clear overarching message. As a supporter familiar with his policies, I know that's not true, but the debate provides a format to crystallize his five-point plan for the middle class in a clear and understandable way, and link it to how it will lead to growth, jobs, and more money in the pockets of working-class Americans.

The Obama campaign has demonized him on this point, and the debate is the single best opportunity to tie all these ideas together into a positive vision for the future. Free from the spin, the TV attack ads, and a media filter, Mitt Romney can look Americans in their eyes and tell them how he can do better. It's a big opportunity, and his performance will be judged largely on his ability to connect on that score.

Momentum: Republicans remain fired up, in spite of a crummy couple of weeks for the Romney campaign. Despite the relentless negative feedback loop of bad press, the race remains very close, and the metrics by which campaign professionals evaluate the state of the race are far, far ahead of where they were in 2008.

Republicans are dying to get rid of President Obama, and a strong Romney performance will unleash an enormous burst of energy and enthusiasm. This will come at just the right time, motivating Republicans who have been feeling a bit down to double up on their efforts, and help persuade independents that maybe all the crap they have been hearing and seeing isn't true after all.

Money: Unlike 2008, and with great credit to Mr. Romney's campaign, they will have the resources to prosecute their argument at the close no matter what, a luxury John McCain did not have four years ago.

However, as a result of the last few weeks the negative energy of "process" stories focused on the "horse race" have had an effect. Supporters of the Governor at all levels are looking for a lift, and a strong performance ensures the financial engine of the Romney campaign will have maximum financial fuel to burn.

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Your readers should remember that Americans will judge the debates – there are three presidential and one vice-presidential – in their sum. But the first one, the biggest prizefight in American politics, is highly anticipated, and will have a deep and immediate impact on the remaining weeks of the race.

My experience with Mitt Romney is that he delivers under pressure. This week, I suspect he will deliver again, and America will be watching.

Linda Moore Forbes served in the Clinton White House and worked on Capitol Hill. She is a Democratic Party insider, political consultant and has worked on several presidential campaigns. She is president of LMF Strategies.

This week is very important for the President's re-election campaign with the first debate on Wednesday, and then the monthly jobs report on Friday. Positive news from both of these for the President can help put Mr. Romney away.

Mr. Romney has been on the defensive for weeks – from Clint Eastwood at the convention to the "47 per cent" comments – confirming America's view that he is an uncaring, out-of-touch rich guy, who needs an extraordinary debate performance to "reset" the race.

Mr. Obama needs to confirm America's sense of the race since the Democratic convention (and President Bill Clinton's stellar nominating speech) that the race is all but over – that he is the more likable and empathetic candidate and has the better agenda for the future.

He should never appear smug – as he did during a pivotal debate in 2008 against Hillary Clinton before the New Hampshire primary with the line: "You're likable enough, Hillary" – while at the same time appearing presidential and in command.

Mr. Romney will benefit from just being on the same stage as the President, and Mr. Romney has debated a great deal this year, and has put a lot a time into prepping for this debate. Mr. Obama not so much. He's been busy doing his job.

Mr. Romney will have some well-prepared "zingers" on the sluggish economy, which could only increase voters' negative view of him. Mr. Obama will need to deliver responses to those that don't look too defensive, and convey how a second Obama term will be better and different than the first, especially when it comes to growing the economy faster and getting his agenda passed by an uncooperative Congress.

The jobs report that will come out on Friday needs to exceed August's 96,000, and most predictors believe it will come in around 130,000. That's enough to continue the recent uptick in economic optimism across the country, particularly in swing states like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.

The worst sign of all lately for the Romney campaign has been the harsh criticism of the candidate and the campaign from Republican Party insiders and even from the candidate's own staff.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is registering and turning out voters (many states have started early voting), and the Democratic Party has never been more united.

Barring outside events, the race should continue on this path.

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About the Author

Affan Chowdhry is the Globe's multimedia reporter specializing in foreign news. Prior to joining the Globe, he worked at the BBC World Service in London creating international news and current affairs programs and online content for a global audience. More

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