Tonight at the University of Denver, President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, will square off in the first of three debates leading up to the November 6 presidential election. The stakes are high for both candidates as polls indicate a statistically even race though the President has an advantage in several hotly contested swing states. Speculation is running high as to the approach each candidate will take, as “personality” and “style” will count as much as substance in swaying voters who are still undecided about their preference. President Obama recently played down any advantage that he might hold by suggesting he is not a great debater while also acknowledging Mr. Romney’s command of issues. Privately and not so quietly some of the Republican’s surrogates and key supporters acknowledge that Romney must make a strong showing to avoid any further erosion in voter support of his candidacy and to stand a chance at convincing independents to get behind his candidacy.
Much of the questioning during these debates will likely focus on the two hot-button issues, the economy and health care, with the economic recovery up front tonight as the official monthly employment data will be released this Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economic issues were considered to play into the hands of the Republican ticket at the start of the campaign but several missteps by Mitt Romney have eroded that advantage. First, his reluctance to fully disclose his tax returns to the extent that the President has and his late release of a tax “summary” gave the Democrats ammunition in their criticism of the Republican challenger. The former governor has also failed to disclose his plan to close the budget deficit and detail which federal government programs he would specifically cut to close the gap and in what timeframe. Romney’s most damaging incident that sidetracked his economic argument was the revelation of his remarks before a wealthy group of political donors. The secret videotape that surfaced captured the Republican presidential candidate lambasting supporters of President Obama and charging that 47 percent of them were simply leaving off the government, behaving like victims and not worth pursuing as voters.
For his part the President will likely face questions over job creation during his first term and persistently high unemployment rates, while also being pressed to make a case for his re-election in the face of a tepid recovery. Though foreign policy has taken a back seat during the campaign, recent events in the Middle East and the killing of U.S. Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in the attack on the embassy in Benghazi will likely prompt questions for the President on his national security policy. The tension with Iran and strain in relations with the Israeli government will also be a focus and an area that Mitt Romney will likely try to exploit to gain credibility on foreign policy in the eyes of voters.
Health care, and specifically the new health care law or “Obamacare,” will also be on the spot. It is fertile ground for a real debate since both candidates have made their mark in health policy; Romney as governor of Massachusetts and President Obama in shepherding national health care. This is a potential landmine for Romney given his criticism of the President and his embrace of a similar plan as “Obamacare” while serving as governor; a plan hailed by the godfather of national health care, the late Senator Ted Kennedy. The Republican candidate is also vulnerable on health care given his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial Medicare proposal that has been widely criticized by the nation’s senior citizen’s advocacy groups. The President might be faced with questioning regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of the health care law by defining it as a tax, and be challenged on why voters should not consider the law a tax increase. President Obama could face questioning over the reluctance of states to set-up health insurance exchanges as mandated by the law, and prompted for reaction to Republicans announced intention to repeal the law should they gain the majority in Congress.
The first debate takes place just a day after a Pennsylvania judge stayed the full implementation of the state’s controversial voter ID law for the November 6 election. The law, along with similar measures in others states, has been pushed by Republicans who claim they are necessary to combat voter fraud. Democrats, and many newspapers, have taken offense to the laws, charging that they are merely an effort to suppress the votes of minorities, the poor and immigrants; groups likely to support the President. Courts have consistently tabled or struck down the recent wave of voter ID laws and further challenging their credibility was the recent revelation that a firm hired by the Florida Republican Party is alleged to have engaged in widespread fabrications of voters registrations in the state.
Beyond the substantive policy aspects in tonight’s line of questioning there are some stylistic issues each candidate must work to address. The President at times can be long-winded and wonkish in how he responds to questions, and take too long to get to his answer. As the incumbent he also has to straddle the line, making sure he remains “presidential” while also being aggressive. Mitt Romney has struggled to connect with voters and comes across as aloof and as a man of wealth who has no understanding of the realities of most working Americans. He also comes across as indecisive and noncommittal in his positions; frequently flipping in whatever direction the political winds blow. Romney has to be aggressive but he must avoid coming across as disrespectful because a significant faction of his base has engaged in vile attacks upon the President. If Romney displays the same disdain as some of his supporters have toward the President, it might please his base but will turnoff independent voters.
Whatever the outcome of tonight’s first debate, both camps will declare victory and start spinning the story of their candidate’s advantage before the debate moderator Jim Lehrer can wish the audience goodnight.