The 4 Big Questions About Tonight's Presidential Debate

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The stakes are high for Mitt Romney because the debate will tell us where the campaign is headed.

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Reuters

DENVER -- Mitt Romney badly needs a moment.

His vice-presidential pick didn't do it. His convention didn't do it. Now the Republican presidential nominee finds himself at a persistent disadvantage in the polls, with a month to go in the campaign and even many members of his own party increasingly skeptical that he can unseat the incumbent President Obama.

The sense that time is running out for Romney means much is riding on his first debate with Obama, which begins tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern at the University of Denver, moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer. But while the stakes are high, the expectations for Romney are not.

The president's team has tried, in laughably transparent ways, to lower the bar for Obama's performance. His advisers can't stop talking about how out of practice he is, how little time he's had to prepare (what with international crises and other presidential business), his tendency to be wordy and convoluted, and his rival's contrasting impressiveness. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm declared on her Current TV show, "The president is going to lose the first debate. Mark my words." Obama's campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki, asked how badly he might do, joked that the president "could fall off the stage."

But the American people aren't buying it. In a Gallup poll conducted last week, 57 percent predicted Obama would do better in the debates, versus just 33 percent who thought Romney would. The mounting media narrative to the effect that Romney is losing has created a sense of haplessness and doom around his candidacy, while bathing Obama in an air of invincibility.

That makes the debate a major opportunity for Romney. He doesn't have to be Mr. Empathy to come off as less heartless than he seems in Obama's television ads. He doesn't have to be hyperarticulate to seem less verbally clumsy than the gaffe machine he's come to represent in the public imagination. He doesn't have to be larger than life to look like he belongs on the presidential dais.

Much has been written about the personalities and styles of the two debaters; for a full briefing, and a great read, check out James Fallows' fantastic cover story in The Atlantic's September issue. There's no doubt that the personal impression the candidates leave with the audience will be the debates' biggest influence. But they also will tell us a few important things about where this campaign is headed -- things we really don't know, and will be closer to understanding 24 hours from now.

What is Romney running on? Since winning the primary, his campaign has been torn between keeping a steady focus on an economic message and looking for political advantage in every passing controversy. The former was a problem because Obama's campaign proved adept at changing the subject, leaving Romney flat-footed; the latter is a problem because it distracts from the focus on the economy and makes Romney appear craven. In the debate, which is to focus on a short list of domestic-policy topics -- the economy, health care, the role of government, and governing -- we'll see whether Romney is eager to fight a multifront war against Obama or whether he relentlessly steers every question back to jobs. And that will likely signal where the last month of the campaign is headed.

How safe does Obama feel? The president's convention speech last month was far from the lofty oratorical heights of which he's capable, a clear sign his team believes he's ahead and would rather avoid risks and keep the focus on his opponent. If Obama is feisty and looking for a knockout blow, that will tell us he feels threatened. If he's calm and even dismissive, it probably means he's feeling comfortable and plans to more or less run out the clock for the next five weeks. Romney, for his part, will almost certainly be aggressive. But he faces a choice of whether to assail Obama as a liar and a character assassin, attitudes he's hinted at in recent days, or instead to take an approach similar to his line against then-Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994: my opponent had his chance, but his time is up.

Are the candidates still aiming primarily for their bases? Despite his moderate background, the Romney of the general election has so far been much more the man who ran as a conservative primary candidate than the moderate governor of Massachusetts. Obama, too, has spent most of the campaign thus far mobilizing Democratic constituencies, targeting students, women, minorities, and gay voters as he tries (apparently successfully) to motivate the left. The question is whether the candidates have any intention of tacking to the center in the traditional way of closing a campaign, or whether they believe this is a different kind of an election, one in which that old rule no longer applies. Romney has recently signaled a newly moderate tone on health care and immigration, a possible signal that he's moving away from his primary image -- but Democrats won't let him get away with too obvious an about-face.

Can Romney shift the focus? From the start, Obama's strategy has been to keep the focus of the campaign on Romney -- and off himself and his record. Thanks to an agile Obama campaign, the public's natural curiosity about the candidate they're less familiar with, and Romney's own missteps, Obama has succeeded at this. It's been all Romney, all the time, while the president largely operates without drama below the radar. Romney has been criticized for not making a better positive case for his candidacy or making voters believe he has a plan to fix things. That's true enough, but more than anything, Romney needs this campaign to stop being about Mitt Romney and start being about the incumbent he's trying to topple. If he comes off as plausible enough in the debates, his biggest reward may be that the focus shifts to his opponent.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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