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.