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.
Also on HuffPost:
Texas Governor Rick Perry's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/09/rick-pery-forgets-federal-agencies_n_1085312.html" target="_hplink">inability to remember</a> the third agency he would cut as president had many predicting the untimely end of his campaign for president. Perry addressed his mental lapse before reporters after the debate, admitting, "Yeah I stepped in it man. Yeah it was embarrassing. Of course it was."
Romney's '$10,000 Bet'
During a GOP primary debate in late 2011, Romney sought to put an end to then-presidential candidate Rick Perry's insistance that Romneycare was the basis of President Barack Obama's health care reform law. Perry launched in with an attack that he'd repeated before: "I'm just saying, you're for individual mandates, my friend," Perry said. "You've raised that before, Rick, and you're simply wrong," Romney responded, extending his hand toward Perry. "Rick, I'll tell you what: 10,000 bucks? $10,000 bet?" Perry declined, nothing that he wasn't a betting man, leaving Romney to quote a chapter from his book that he cited as proof he had never intended for his health care plan to be used as a national model.
Bachmann On Libya, Africa
At a GOP primary debate in October of 2011, Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/18/michele-bachmann-libya-africa_n_1018814.html" target="_hplink">criticized</a> Obama's foreign policy decisions. "Now with the president, he put us in Libya," she said. "He is now putting us in Africa. We already were stretched too thin, and he put our special operations forces in Africa." Libya is, in fact, a country in Africa.
During a 2010 gubernatorial debate, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/02/jan-brewer-starts-badly-f_n_703559.html" target="_hplink">struggled to name</a> any of her accomplishments while introducing herself. "We have ... done so much ... We have um, did what was right for Arizona," she squeezed out after a long silent pause.
Can't Name Any Supreme Court Cases
Christine O'Donnell was unable to name a single recent Supreme Court decision she disagreed with, when asked by moderator Nancy Karibjanian during a 2010 Delaware Senate debate. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/13/christine-odonnell-stumped-supreme-court-debate_n_762067.html" target="_hplink">The dialogue</a>: <blockquote><strong>KARIBJANIAN</strong>: What opinions, of late, that have come from our high court, do you most object to? <strong>O'DONNELL</strong>: Oh, gosh. Um, give me a specific one. I'm sorry. <strong>KARIBJANIAN</strong>: Actually, I can't, because I need you to tell me which ones you object to. <strong>O'DONNELL</strong>: Um, I'm very sorry, right off the top of my head, I know that there are a lot, but I'll put it up on my website, I promise you.</blockquote>
Can I Call You Joe?
When Sarah Palin and Joe Biden shook hands at the start of a 2008 vice presidential debate, Palin asked then then-Senator "Hey, Can I call you Joe?" "You can call me Joe," Biden replied. Palin <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/0110/Two_versions_of_Can_I_call_you_Joe.html" target="_hplink">evidently kept confusing</a> then-Senator Joe Biden's last name with President Barack Obama's, referring to the VP candidate repeatedly as "O'Biden" in debate prep. Her staffers suggested she call him by his first name.
Change You Can Xerox
Hilary Clinton's attempt at a jab toward President Barack Obama got her booed by the audience during a 2008 presidential debate. Clinton accused Obama of plagiarism in his popular speeches, saying "Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox."
During a Democratic presidential primary debate in early 2008, then-candidate Hillary Clinton was being pressed on surveys that suggested New Hampshire voters appreciated her resume, but found then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) more likable. Clinton appeared to feign insult, drawing sympathetic applause and smiles from the crowd. "Well, that hurts my feelings," she said. "But I'll try to go on. "He's very likable," Clinton continued of Obama. "I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad." Obama took a brief break from scribbling notes to weigh in. "You're likable enough, Hillary," Obama said tersely, not making eye contact with Clinton. He then returned to his notepad.
Al Gore's Sighing
A 2000 presidential debate seriously hurt Al Gore's campaign when the cutaway shots caught him rolling his eyes and sighing audibly during George W. Bush's answers. Critics say behavior made Gore look elitist and unlikable in contrast with Bush's relaxed and folksy demeanor. Jon Stewart mocks Gore's sighs in The Daily Show clip above.
Let Me Finish
Ross Perot may go down in history for his repeated interruptions of "let me finish" during a 1992 presidential debate. The behavior became fodder for SNL comedian Dana Carvey's Perot impression.
Glancing At His Watch
George H. W. Bush was caught glancing at his watch during a 1992 presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. The now-famous move damaged Bush's campaign, making him look bored and impatient, <a href="http://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2008/01/17/a-damaging-impatience" target="_hplink">reports say</a>. Bush snuck at peek at his watch again during his daughter-in-law Laura Bush's speech at the Republican convention in 2008.
Who Am I? Why Am I Here?
When Independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot picked Vietnam War hero Admiral James Stockdale for his VP nominee, it created a rare three-person Vice Presidential debate in 1992. Stockdale was not a politician and not very well known. Attempting to introduce itself and poke some fun at this, he chose as his opening statement: "Who am I? Why am I here?" Stockdale later said he hoped to follow up the remarks with an explanation of his life, but never got to that point. Instead, the line left viewers wondering the same thing.
Dispassionate Death Penalty Response
When the moderator of a 1988 presidential debate asked Governor Michael Dukakis if he would support the death penalty if his wife, Kitty Dukakis, was raped and murdered, Dukakis dispassionately responded, "No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life." He then continued to talk about his stance. Some believe the lack of emotion or passion for the hypothetical situation cost Dukakis the election.
You're No Jack Kennedy
In the 1988 Vice Presidential debate between Democratic VP candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Republican VP candidate Senator Dan Quayle, Quayle was asked if his qualifications were sufficient to inherit the presidency, should it come to that. Quayle responded by comparing his experience level Jack Kennedy's experience level when he sought the presidency. The comparison prompted Bensten to say: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Quayle responded, "That was really uncalled for Senator."
No Soviet Domination
In the 1976 presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, Ford famously stated "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." The remark came in response to a question about U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, a major concern in the Cold War era, and didn't sit well with an increasingly anti-Soviet public. Ford refused to back down from the claim even after the somewhat baffled debate moderator responded, "I'm sorry, what? ... Did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it's a communist zone?"
Sickly Nixon vs. Fit JFK
The 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was the first nationally televised debate in the U.S. and <a href="http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2021078,00.html" target="_hplink">is thought to have</a> changed politics forever. The debate was historically declared a win for Kennedy by those who watched it on TV, and a win for Nixon for those who listened to it on the radio. Though the candidates were both strong on the issues, the visibly sweating Nixon looked sickly and pale compared to the young and fit Kennedy.