All candidates and their political handlers spend a lot of time on debate "prep." And for good reason! A single gaffe could doom a candidate (Gerald Ford on Soviet domination during the 1976 debates) and one well-timed, well-delivered zinger can score the candidate points (Ronald Reagan on his age during the 1984 debates). Both possibilities will receive excessive coverage by the press and will certainly "go viral" in the social media.
So, we already know, for instance, that Senator John Kerry will be playing Mitt Romney during President Barack Obama's preparations and that Senator Rob Portman will assume the role of Obama for Governor Romney's rehearsals. We also know the format for the debates, their location, and the moderators selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates. What we don't know are the questions!
As everyone from the two nominees and their consultants to media pundits and Vegas bookies (I'm serious) attempt to predict the debate questions, I have a more tried and true approach: History.
The CPD has been organizing presidential debates since 1988 and most recent debates have featured a single moderator format. Moreover, Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer (the moderators for the first and third presidential debates, which are the two single-moderator debates) have both hosted debates before -- Lehrer a staggering 11 of them. So, we have a lot to work with.
Both men are cautious, fair, and are the consummate professionals... and they are consistent.
Based on their previous performances, here is what they will ask Obama and Romney.
Therefore, as they did before, Lehrer and Schieffer will ask the candidates about the topics that poll as the most important political and policy issues of the day. The first debate, held at the University of Denver, focuses on domestic policy and involves six main topics. Mr. Lehrer will thus ask about the economy -- specifically, about plans for creating jobs, addressing high unemployment, and getting the deficit and debt under control. Other domestic issues polling high among the public include healthcare, the future of Medicare, and immigration.
The third debate, held at Lynn University, will be dedicated to foreign policy issues. It too involves six main topics. Mr. Schieffer can be expected to ask about plans to end the war in Afghanistan, the larger threat of terrorism, instability in the "Arab Spring" countries, and immigration.
These will be the main questions. How can there be a presidential debate on domestic policy and one on foreign policy without such topics? However, both men like to bring out contrasts in their interviewees and they have shown an interest in individual style and character. So, expect them to ask Obama and Romney to differentiate their positions, experiences, and approach to decision making and leadership.
All this is easy to predict. But, I also expect at least one surprise question in each debate.
How about: "Mr. Obama, what does the role of money and the negative attacks by super PACs in this campaign say about our politics and your leadership?" Or: "Mr. Romney, why the venom and vitriol from the Right directed at President Obama? As a leader in your party, why didn't you stand up to attacks suggesting the president doesn't love his country, is not a 'real American,' or wasn't born in the U.S.?"
Bet on it.