DENVER -- This is it for Mitt.
He’s got to show that he cares about everybody, not just the 53 percent he thinks might vote for him; that he is a real guy with a real heart and a genuine concern for making government work for all.
If Willard Mitt Romney can’t turn the narrative around tonight, his chances of defeating President Barack Obama will fade faster than the snow in the sunshine of the Rocky Mountain foothills here.
On a stage at the University of Denver at 9 p.m., a 65-year-old businessman turned Republican politician turned conservative Tea Party-esque presidential candidate finally gets to do what he has long predicted would make him president.
He will confront Obama on the economy, on his handling of it, and on Romney’s own claim that he can do a better job as economic commander-in-chief.
It is the most important 90 minutes thus far in an election season noted primarily for gaffes and mistakes by an often hapless Republican field -– Romney won by being the only presentable possibility –- and for an Obama campaign that has focused ruthlessly on attacking the records, statements and even the personalities of those who would oppose the president.
But underlying concern about the future of the country in general and the economy in particular has left the president vulnerable, even if the campaign has gone mostly his way thus far.
The latest national polls give him a comfortable lead in the Electoral College race, especially because his campaign has been effective at targeting, and gaining an advantage in, key swing states such as Ohio.
But the president leads the popular vote horserace by only three points, 49-46 percent among likely voters in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
The academic and conventional wisdom is that races rarely change radically this late in the game, with just 34 days until election day. Early voting has already begun in some states. And in a closely divided electorate such as ours, most voters have long since made up their minds.
Still, four in 10 voters surveyed by the NBC/WSJ poll say that the debates will be “extremely important” or “very important” to their decision-making, and key moments of debates sometimes do affect the race.
Romney’s game-changing guiding light is Ronald Reagan, who used the first and only debate in 1980 to explode the notion that he was too old and too weird to be president. Instead of seeing a doddering Goldwater conservative, voters saw an avuncular, calm, confident and reassuring figure who asked the key question of the time: are you better off than you were four years ago?
The answer was “no” and President Jimmy Carter lost.
A related but somewhat different question is at the heart of tonight’s debate, which will be hosted by PBS’s calm-voiced Jim Lehrer and which has been designated by the Presidential Debate Commission to focus on the economy and other domestic issues.
This time the questions are: Given the depth of the Great Recession he was confronted with, did the president do a good job of digging us out? And given that record, and Romney’s claims to expertise in the world of corporate finance and management, who would do a better job of handling the next four years?
“It’s pretty straightforward, actually,” a top Romney adviser told The Huffington Post as the debate preparations began in earnest last week. “We want to have a conversation over the course of these debates about who would do a better job on the economy in the years ahead.”
In essence, voters will be watching tonight to decide whom to hire for that job.
Cold numbers are part of that decision as they look at the resumes, so to speak. The unemployment rate remains stubbornly high; the number of Americans in poverty is at an all-time high. The president promised that these numbers would improve more than they have.
Such numbers give Romney, more or less by default, a better rating than the president on the question of who would best handle the economy -- 45-42 percent in the latest polling.
But attitudes matter as much as numbers, and those are improving in the president’s direction. While most voters still think that the country overall is headed in the wrong direction, optimism about the economy has rebounded. In the NBC/WSJ poll, 57 percent now say that in their view the economy is improving.
And personality and values matter most, especially to late-deciding debate watchers.
People know the president, and, overall, like him on a personal level. They give him good marks for family values and for having a sense of their lives, even if he hasn’t always made the right decisions.
Romney isn’t a mystery. People essentially don’t like him. His “unfavorables” continue to outweigh his “favorables” in the polls.
Too many voters -– particularly women and Hispanics, to name the two key groups –- tend to see him as a wealthy, distant, isolated and callous guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.
Romney has the white male vote locked up: not because he hunts “varmits” (which he doesn’t, really), but because he talks in the language of tax cuts and a less intrusive federal government and because he isn’t Obama.
We know he isn’t Obama. That much is clear. Tonight he has to explain to middle class working women why a guy who said he could care less about the 47 percent of the country really does care about us all.
Mitt, you’re up.