For weeks, President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney have sparred with partners, immersed themselves in piles of position papers, practiced remaining cool, and in the case of Romney, memorized unforgettable zingers.
Their strategy and goals were necessarily different. Mitt Romney had to blame President Obama for everything that was wrong with America. For Obama, the goal was to justify his record, to sound like a president rather than a professor, and to explain the economic crisis was implemented by the same Republican policies advocated by Mitt Romney and conservative Republicans.
Although debates can make or break an election, President Obama enjoyed a substantial lead of three to five percent in most polls a week before the debate began. His big mistake before the election was to fail to publicize the considerable accomplishments achieved by his administration. These included saving the auto industry; preventing a depression and bank run by helping the financial industry; creating thousands of jobs through government-sponsored programs; promoting the rights of American-born children of immigrants from deportation; supporting the rights of same-sex marriage; signing legislation that guaranteed women's pay equity with men; promoting legislation, commonly called "Obamacare," that will provide health care for almost all Americans; ending the "gag rule" that prevented funds for family planning around the world; supporting women's reproductive choices and health; providing federal funds to Planned Parenthood; and promoting fairer loans to college students.
Unfortunately, too few American knew about these accomplishments. Nor are they aware that those that failed were blocked by ideological Senate Republicans who fought his agenda of creating a greater stimulus, more assistance for students, protection for the children of immigrants and dozens of other issues.
But will the American people understand that Obama inherited an economic crisis and yet managed to steer the country from sliding into a full-blown depression? Or will they focus on the fact that he failed to help enough people who lost their homes, which gave many people the legitimate sense that this is an administration that doesn't care about their lives?
Mitt Romney, for his part, was busy practicing zingers, possibly because he has seemed so muddled and contradictory in the last months. In order to win the primary, he had to move to the far right, even criticizing the universal health care program he created in Massachusetts, promising to repeal Obamacare, and changing his view from supporting women's reproductive choice to denouncing abortion.
Now that he has to appeal to the entire country, as opposed to the Tea Party, he has begun to soften his attacks on Obamacare, even suggesting that some parts might be worthwhile. At the same time, his big mistake was to choose a vice-presidential candidate, Congressman Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin, who famously wrote a budget that would replace Medicare health care for Seniors for a private voucher plan, and whose tax plan would cut the taxes of the wealthy or, as they both call them, the "job creators."
Now, Mitt Romney must try to convince Americans that he feels their pain and cares about the middle class and "working families," an American euphemism for the working class and the poor. But it's probably too late. He has repeatedly said that people must take individual responsibility for their lives, even if they're disabled or ill and that they should not expect the government to assist them.
And viewers will easily detect any change in policy. Just recently, Mother Jones, an investigative magazine, released a video of Mitt Romney addressing wealthy donors at a $50,000-a-plate dinner. The video revealed Mitt Romney's candid lack of concern or compassion for half the population. The GOP presidential nominee said that that 47 percent of Americans who support Obama are "victims " who are "dependent upon government" and "pay no income tax." He added, "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." The video instantly went viral and undermined his last-minute efforts to describe himself as a candidate concerned with the problems of ordinary Americans
As the debate begins and the candidates start to spar, they carry all this baggage on to the stage. At stake are two views of which values should shape American society. Obama has explained that government should be used to help the vulnerable and when the nation is in crisis. Mitt Romney, on the hand, has said people should not expect the government to provide them with health, food or shelter. Those words, of course, were meant for the Tea Party, not for the nation. At the debate, he will instead try to convince viewers that he's a businessman who knows how to run a country, and that he would lower the debt, shrink the government, and protect the security and health of Seniors. Having chosen Paul Ryan as his partner, his words will disingenuous and deceptive.
Most importantly, he had done nothing to persuade women -- who have given Obama a generous gender gap in the past -- to vote for him. More women have consistently supported Obama because he has made it clear that every one of his policies seek to help families, support women's rights, and educate their children.
Among the expected 50 million people who will watch the first debate will be many men and women who have lost their jobs and homes, and live with anxious uncertainty about the future of their families. Mitt Romney has said nothing that would reassure that he would help these people, the young or the elderly.
Perhaps he will do better when the topic is not about the domestic security of the nation.
Ruth Rosen, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, is a Professor Emerita of History at U.C. Davis and a scholar in residence at the Center for the Study of Right-Wing Movement at U.C. Berkeley. Her most recent book was "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America."
Follow Ruth Rosen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Ruth_Rosen