As debates begin, voters already getting the final word

The New York TimesOctober 3, 2012 

— President Barack Obama will have the first word at the presidential debate. Mitt Romney will have the last word. But even before they step onto the stage and shake hands here tonight, voters across the country are already starting to have the final word.

With a little more than a month left in the race, and early voting under way in 35 states, that is the reality facing Obama and Romney as they meet for the first of three face-to-face debates. While Republicans concede that time may be fading for Romney to change the dynamic of the campaign, Democrats know it has not faded yet, and both men face risks — and rewards — for their performances.

A presidential race between an incumbent and a challenger, which has played out for most of the year in biting television commercials and fiery speeches, suddenly narrows to a pair of candidates standing side-by-side starting at 9 p.m. Eastern time. For 90 minutes, the rivals will be essentially equal, creating what Romney’s advisers believe is a critical opportunity to make a move in the race.

There will be no rigid time limits, buzzers or cheering that often threatened to turn the Republican primary debates into a recurring political game show. The debate will be divided into six segments of 15 minutes, with ample opportunity for robust exchanges and a level of specificity that both sides have often sought to avoid.

As Romney took a lunch break Tuesday, he told reporters, “I’m getting there,” when asked whether he was ready for one of the biggest moments of his campaign. In Nevada, where Obama practiced for the debate, he went for a quick tour of the Hoover Dam.

Here is a look at a few things to watch — in style and in substance — as the debate unfolds at the University of Denver, here in the battleground state of Colorado, for the first of three encounters between the president and Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.

RIVALS: The two men may spend considerable time talking and thinking about each other, but they know each other only from afar. They have not appeared on the same stage in nearly eight years, when they both spoke at the winter Gridiron Dinner in 2004, a white-tie gathering that is a staple on the social calendar of official Washington.

While advisers to Obama and Romney said that the two men seem to have little genuine appreciation for each other, it is unlikely their true feelings will be on display. The president, who has yet to live down an offhand remark from a debate in 2008 when he told Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton she was merely “likable enough,” has been warned by his aides to avoid being smug.

Romney may have a bit more latitude in this regard as he tries to show Republicans — and undecided voters — that he can forcefully challenge the president and regain command of the race.

TOPICS: The debate is to focus on domestic issues, with a particular emphasis on the economy. There is no shortage of material, considering the national unemployment rate is 8.1 percent.

But even though the rationale of Romney’s candidacy is rooted in his business experience and his promise to revive the economy, advisers said that he will try to broaden the argument against Obama’s job performance by raising questions about how his administration handled the attack on a diplomatic mission last month in Libya that killed four Americans.

The challenge for both men in the debate, to be moderated by Jim Lehrer, will be to enliven the conversation with fresh details, rather than offering a line-by-line replay of the campaign so far.

STAGECRAFT:

The candidates’ interactions could be just as important as the answers to the debate questions. Romney has practiced being “respectfully aggressive,” a senior adviser said, with a goal of pleasing Republicans who believe he has been too passive.

OLD VS. NEW: The general election debates, which pushed presidential campaigns into the television age a half-century ago, are facing a new test. The rise of social media has already reshaped the race, raising questions of whether the audience will match the 52.8 million viewers who tuned into the first debate between Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., four years ago.

But this year, on the eve of the first debate, Ohio became the second battleground state Tuesday to open its doors to early voting. And by the time the third debate takes place Oct. 22, tens of millions of Americans will have already voted.

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