The 4 Big Questions About Tonight's Presidential Debate

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.

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

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