Presidential debates are generally not very sexy affairs. Still, 52 million viewers are expected to tune in when President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney square off in Denver Wednesday night for the first of their three debates. Will undecided voters, so key to the election's outcome, be turned off and tune out or turned on and finally ready to make a commitment in what's so far been a very tight race?
For Romney, the stakes couldn't be higher. After a dismal September, the Republican once again has to redefine himself. If he gets lucky, he'll be able to back himself out of the corner into which Obama has painted him.
"Romney isn't a bad debater and did very well in the primaries, but Obama did something that was strategically very wise. He went after Romney early in the campaign and established a narrative of him as a ruthless businessman who loves to fire people that he can't escape," said San Francisco State University political scientist Robert Smith. "And that problem was exacerbated by the 47 percent remarks."
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday found that 55 percent of registered voters expect Obama to give the best performance, compared to just 31 percent who said the same of Romney.
Changing that trajectory won't be easy, and may depend on which Mitt shows up: the one who to some seems willing to say anything to woo the Republican Party's far right base or the inner moderate he's been sheltering?
Lately, it's been looking like both. Romney recently spoke proudly of the health care reform law he signed as governor of Massachusetts, has said he would keep parts of Obamacare and that he won't revoke the president's new two-year visa program for young illegal immigrants.
"Increasingly, people are getting the sense that Romney's at least partly what Obama says he is," Smith said. "He's an already awkward person who's in an awkward position because he's had to be something he's really not."
The best way "to avoid sounding like a people pleaser," offered Brian Darling, senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, "is to map out a specific agenda that people can point to as something Romney stands for," like Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan.
"Romney needs to show the differences between where he would take America and where President Obama would take America in a second term," said Darling. "It's very important for him to attack [Obama's] failed record and make it clear that the economy isn't better off after the stimulus, people aren't feeling good about Obamacare and the general direction of the country, [including on foreign policy]."
Smith doubts that the issues most important to African-American voters, such as their double-digit unemployment rate or increasing poverty, will receive much attention. But they need to listen closely when the discussion turns to the federal budget and deficit, he said. The budget proposal authored by Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, Smith added "proposes to make dramatic cuts in virtually every domestic area, while increasing the deficit and lowering taxes," which will hit African-Americans where they're already hurting.
It also is hurting what could have been a very effective attack against Obama, under whom the economy hasn't performed well and the deficit has skyrocketed, Smith noted.
"This debate probably will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of the election" said Smith, who expressed surprise that Obama is at this stage leading his opponent. "It will plant in Americans' minds an image of the candidates that will be very difficult to dislodge unless something dramatic evolves that we can't anticipate."
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(Photos from left: John Gurzinski/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)