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Obama-Romney Debate: What To Watch For In Denver

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WASHINGTON -- Wednesday night, the 2012 campaign-a-palooza will proceed to another important series of events, the presidential debates. Beginning in Denver, Americans will be tuning in to see President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (as well as Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan) spar with each other on matters both foreign and domestic.

Here's some good news: unlike the 2011-2012 GOP primary season, there will not be 700 kabillion of these things. Those vying to be president shall meet on just three occasions, and their running mates shall joust just once. So these debates will not nearly be as tiresome as the ones that seemed to come weekly in January 2012 or December 2011. Or November. Or September and August. Remember when there was a primary debate back in May 2011? We think we can all agree that was a terrible idea.

In addition, these debates are being managed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which tends to enforce a certain amount of staid decorum. This means that unlike the primary season debates, the audiences will not tend to be as rambunctious, and the proceedings will not be captured as episodes of some grand reality show contest, as CNN opted to depict them during the primaries, despite the fact that it made CNN look utterly idiotic.

The bad news? Well, if you were hoping for an appearance from, say, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, or Green Party hopeful Jill Stein, forget it. These debates are just as corrupt and broken as the others in terms of shutting out alternative voices to the two-party system. Despite the fact that Johnson and Stein are on the presidential ballot in a sufficient number of states, neither has cleared 15 percent in any national poll, a requirement the commission strictly enforces. Of course, supporters of these candidates might ask, "Why not test the viability of these candidates' policies and positions by providing them with the level of national exposure that these debates provide? Maybe then the candidates would become more popular with the public." ("Because reasons, shut up," the Commission on Presidential Debates would reply.)

Anyway, here's everything you need to know about Wednesday's opening salvo in televised presidential forensics.

THE VENUE AND TOPIC AREA: The first debate, held at the University of Denver's Magness Arena, is slated to be about domestic policy. One hopes that the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crash -- especially the ongoing unemployment and foreclosure crisis -- will be heavily featured in the discussion, but you can also expect the candidates to respond to questions about their plans for tax reform, entitlement programs, health care reform and the deficit. Those topics alone could crowd out a 90-minute debate session, which means that one thing you'll want to watch for is which topics don't make it to the table. Student loans, immigration reform, infrastructure restoration, financial regulatory reform -- one or more of these topics might not end up getting discussed.

THE MODERATOR: Moderating the first debate will be PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer, and if you've been longing for the 2012 presidential contest to emerge from its extended period of superficiality and become, at last, substantive, Lehrer is your best hope. The man wrote the book on presidential debates -- literally. His instructive memoir of the years he's spent both as a moderator of debates and a student of the genre, "Tension City" is a terrific insider take on how moderators prepare and shape the contests, with deep detail on many of the "frozen moments" we remember from debates past.

If "Tension City" gives us any clue as to how Lehrer is approaching his task, you can expect him to be meticulously well-prepared. The man pretty much agonizes over the language he uses to engage the candidates. He'll have spent weeks drafting, redrafting, and refining his inquiries -- and he'll have done so out of a sense of duty. Of course, if you've read "Tension City," you'll know that in it, he vowed that he was getting out of the debate moderation game, and he's apparently "seething" about criticism that he's "too old and too safe to moderate yet another debate."

Nevertheless, he'll leave his mark on the Denver debate.

THE DEBATE FORMAT: And this is how. The format of the opener deviates slightly from debates we've seen before. Rather than pose nine questions of each candidate, Lehrer got the commission to agree to change things, and allow 15 minutes of discussion for six topic areas. Lehrer's goal: to get the candidates to "ask each other questions and wrangle, like guests on Sunday TV talk shows."

THE PRE-GAME STRATEGY: By now, you've probably heard that the "Expectations Game" -- in which surrogates of each candidate profess a worry that their guy is going to be a walking disaster and that their opponent is the most eloquent debater since Cicero litigated the Catilinarian Conspiracy -- is in full effect. Dan Amira was at his satiric best in sending up how the "Expectations Game" works, but the general goal here is for each campaign to place the lowest possible bar before their candidate, so there's no chance they won't clear it.

Beyond that, we are told that Mitt Romney has been rehearsing a bunch of awesome "debate zingers," in the hopes that he will be able to manufacture some sort of "frozen moment" that the media will remember the next day. This may be dismaying to any of Romney's nominal allies, who have urged him in recent days to "go large" or concentrate on providing specifics to the domestic policy plans he has purposely kept vague. But giving Romney some quips to toss around may prove to be a good idea. In recent contests, Romney's improvisations have been more of the "$10,000 bet" variety. It's worth noting that back during his gubernatorial run, Romney was excellent at spontaneous pushback and was generally held to be a superior debater. But that was way back before Romney needed satellite technology to find his way back to his policy positions.

For the Obama campaign, the general concern is that the president will come off as too "professorial" during the debate. Now, professor-like qualities tend to get an unfair rap in the world of political messaging, but it's not for nothing that Obama joked that former President Bill Clinton should be his secretary of explaining things. Clinton has well nigh mastered the art of breaking down complicated matters for audiences of ordinary Americans. He's thorough, but he's empathic -- crafting stories instead of lectures. Obama, by contrast, has the tendency to head straight into the long-winded weeds of wonkdom, which means he's spending more valuable time having less of an impact on the audience.

Aside from that concern, the Obama camp is likely worried about what might happen if Romney manages to get under their candidate's skin. The old 2008 primary debate clip of Obama telling Hillary Clinton that she was "likeable enough" has been in heavy rotation this week as the media sets the stage for this contest. (This is probably why Romney is working on "zingers," by the way.)

THE POTENTIAL GAME-CHANGER: Earlier this week, it was reported that Republicans were laying out a late-game strategy to make the Obama administration's muddled response to the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, a focal point of their case against the president. The problem? Romney's first opportunity to bring up foreign policy at a debate won't happen until Oct. 16. Technically, anyway. Romney seemingly jumped on board with the plan, this week publishing an op-ed on the topic that has Salon's Craig Unger speculating that "he may well turn the subject to Libya" on Wednesday. (It's worth pointing out that on Sunday's edition of "Fox News Sunday," the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol advised Romney to ignore Jim Lehrer's questions.)

WHAT'S AT STAKE: For Romney, there's some potential ground to be made up in the polls if he comes to the debate and performs adequately. Depending on how much narrowing in the polls occurs between now and Wednesday, there's even the potential to draw the race back into a dead heat by week's end (though the problems he's facing in states like Ohio are still much more affected by the ground game at this point).

As a challenger, Romney's baked-in advantage is that this will be the first time he's actually shared the stage with Obama as an equal. Consequently, that "choice" that America has between two possible futures is going to be much less abstract in the minds of voters when they are presented with two plausible chief executive choices. Just by standing on the same podium, Romney could benefit from a simple levelling effect. (Oh, hey, it's worth a reminder! You stand ON a podium. You stand BEHIND a lectern. After the debate, you can make fun of all the experienced political reporters that get this wrong.)

Of course, being declared (plausibly!) the "winner" of the debate will have an advantageous effect as well, as undecided voters do tend to want to back "winners." Of course, the heavy lifting of "winning" the debate will continue for hours after the debate ends, as campaign spin-doctors make the case for their candidate for the benefit of thousands of reporters who will be flown to Denver to be spin-doctored. Why we bother to send so many reporters halfway across the country just so they can be bullshitted at by campaign proxies is a good question, and it is not something we are looking forward to explaining one day to a hyper-intelligent race of extra-terrestrial visitors. Hopefully, they will just nuke us from space, with death rays.

SOME FINAL DEBATE-WATCHING ADVICE: On this Sunday's edition of "This Week," former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean made the following recommendation to debate viewers: "The key to a debate, if you want to see how it moves the American people, is to turn off the sound, watch the mannerisms." That's an interesting idea. We, however, would recommend you turn off the sound and cue up Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side Of The Moon," instead.

Wednesday's debate is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time. It will go 90 minutes, and will be broadcast in its entirety on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and C-SPAN, as well as on ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC.

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