Three looming debates represent the last, best chance for President Obama or Mitt Romney to force a decisive moment in the presidential race.
The Romney team will be especially eager to maximize the opportunity, in light of several polls showing that Obama has widened his previously small lead since last week’s Democratic National Convention.
The president’s boost from that event might well dissipate in the weeks ahead, but, for now, it has bolstered the confidence of the Obama camp — and deepened worries among Republicans.
For Obama, the priority is to emphasize once again that the election is a choice and Romney is an unacceptable alternative.
The time to prepare is short. The first debate takes place in Denver, Colo., on Oct. 3. The others follow in Hempstead, N.Y., and Boca Raton, Fla., later in the month.
Vice President Biden and Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanRepublicans raise red flags about ObamaCare repeal strategy Overnight Healthcare: GOP in talks about helping insurers after ObamaCare repeal Ryan on Trump: 'We're not looking back' MORE (R-Wis.), will debate once, in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 11.
Romney, who debated about 20 times during the GOP primaries, spent three days in debate preparation last week at a Vermont retreat. Ohio Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanGOP debates going big on tax reform Who is Tim Ryan? A closer look at Pelosi’s challenger Battle for the Senate: Top of ticket dominates MORE (R) played the role of Obama.
Obama also has begun to shake off the debate rust. He reportedly has held one practice session, with Massachusetts Sen. John KerryJohn KerryIran’s nuclear deal just the tip of the iceberg for Trump Trump needs to stand firm on immigration, 'religious-test' insticts Budowsky: Ellison, Kerry to DNC? MORE (D) standing in for Romney.
Both sides have cause to believe they start with an advantage going in. Obama not only has the polls in his favor, for now. He has also done this before — three times against Sen. John McCainJohn McCainPentagon should have a civilian chief to give peace a chance McCain to support waiver for Mattis, Trump team says Senators crafting bill to limit deportations under Trump MORE (R-Ariz.) four years ago.
But debates between an incumbent president and a challenger tend to have more upside for the latter, according to several experts. Simply by appearing on the same stage, the theory goes, the challenger gets a boost in stature.
“There is some evidence that people learn more about the challenger than the incumbent,” said Bill Benoit, an Ohio University communications professor who has written extensively about presidential debates. “Attitudes toward an incumbent are more difficult to change.”
Republicans hope that this year’s clash will parallel that of 1980, when Ronald Reagan, the challenger, was in a tight race with President Jimmy Carter.
There was only one debate featuring both major-party candidates during the campaign. (Carter had refused to participate in an earlier bout because independent candidate John Anderson was included.) It was held just a week before Election Day.
It is widely agreed that Reagan deflated many of the negative stereotypes that had clung to him up until that point, appearing as a credible and non-extreme candidate for the nation’s highest office.
Two moments crystallized voters’ support for the Republican and unease with the incumbent: Reagan famously turned around one Carter attack by smiling ruefully and saying simply, “There you go again”; and he asked voters the question the GOP wants to focus on this year: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
In the wake of the debate, Reagan broke away from Carter in the polls and ended up winning the election handily.
Though most Republicans expect Obama to be a more potent foe for Romney than Carter was for Reagan, they also believe that if the 2012 standard-bearer can do as Reagan did by clearing the bar of acceptability, voters could move into his column at high speed and in substantial numbers.
“I think Romney has the facts on his side,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean told The Hill. “The economy is not getting any better. I think the race is very even, and these debates provide a chance for people to like Mitt Romney and to connect with him.”
Bonjean also noted, as do many observers, that Romney has another factor in his favor: he has had a lot of recent practice, thanks to the grueling schedule of debates during his quest for the Republican nomination.
Romney was commonly credited as being the most impressive participant in those debates overall, though skeptics say he competed against a weak field.
“He won the primaries in large part through his debate performance,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. “He has come a long way since 2008.”
Obama will walk into the spotlight at the University of Denver on Oct. 3 having not participated in a real debate in almost 1,500 days. (His last debate with McCain was Oct. 15, 2008.) But his convention speech last week hinted that he’ll take an aggressive stance against Romney.
In Charlotte, Obama sought with a new vigor to present his Republican challenger as unready to assume the nation’s highest office, especially on foreign policy.
“You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally,” Obama said, referring to Romney’s alleged missteps in the United Kingdom in July.
The new sharpness of the Obama attacks means that any perceived gaffe from the Republican is likely to assume a greater significance than it otherwise might.
On the other hand, those attacks would probably founder if, over the course of the three debates, Romney is perceived to have proven himself a capable match for the president.
Obama also has a mixed record on the debating stage. While he more than held his own against McCain, some of his most awkward moments during the 2008 primaries came in debates.
Especially memorable, for the wrong reasons, was an off-hand comment to then-Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDemocrats miss warning signs, even in blue Maryland Robert Gates doesn't expect job in Trump administration Dean drops out of DNC chairmanship race MORE during a debate shortly before the New Hampshire primary.
In response to a question suggesting Clinton was simply not liked by voters, Obama said “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” He later said he meant the sentiment sincerely, but to many people it appeared disdainful.
“I think the president has a somewhat better reputation as a debater than he deserves,” said Columbus State University professor David Lanoue, the co-author of a book about presidential debates.
Lanoue argued that Obama’s apparent debating victory over McCain in 2008 — polls asking voters which man won each encounter showed a big edge for Obama — was more the consequence of the “reservoir of support” that had built up around the Democrat by that point.
“His personal style does not translate quite so well to dialogues as it does to speeches,” he added.
Democrats, however, would be more than happy for the president to be seen as the debate underdog. The ability to manage expectations can be vital during the debate phase of a campaign, with a candidate often being judged against media predictions of his or her likely performance.
Perhaps with that in mind, Democratic strategists like Doug Thornell are already talking Romney up and downplaying, albeit modestly, their candidate’s abilities.
“Clearly, Mitt Romney has had a lot of practice,” Thornell said. “He is definitely going to be well-prepared and he’s a good debater. Democrats should not underestimate him.”
Of Obama’s debating abilities, Thornell would say only that “he’s fine. He hasn’t had to do it in a while. That favors Romney. [Obama] won all three debates against McCain, but that was four years ago.”
McKinnon, for his part, agreed that “political debates aren’t scored formally. It’s a lot about perception.”
He added: “Voters and the media think of Obama as a far superior orator than Romney, so they will have higher expectations for Obama.”
The experts caution that debates rarely determine outcomes, but they add that it is equally rare that they don’t matter at all.
“There has never been a general-election debate that elected or defeated a president,” Lanoue said. But, he added, “if a debate moves the needle 3 to 5 percentage points, that’s pretty significant.”
Right now, either candidate would settle for that.