DENVER -- Just 34 days out from the November election, there’s little argument that tonight’s presidential debate - in which President Obama and Mitt Romney will go head-to-head for the first time in this campaign - is a high-stakes affair for both men.
With polls increasingly showing Mr. Obama leading Romney by varying degrees, both nationally and in battleground states, the Colorado match-up offers each candidate a critical opportunity: For the president, it’s a chance to shore up his support and solidify what appears to be a recent advantage; Romney, meanwhile, has perhaps his best remaining shot at seizing a much-needed boost in momentum after a disappointing couple of months.
“The stakes are enormous for Mitt Romney,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who served as a top adviser to 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain. “He goes into the debate behind, after a difficult summer, a failed convention, and a series of self-inflicted wounds in September. The hour is growing short to make up ground and come from behind in the swing states where he needs to win if he wants to become elected president.”
One debate may not be enough for Romney to take over the lead, analysts say, but a strong performance tonight could certainly put him on the right path - a fact both that will surely weigh deeply on the minds of both candidates.
“I don’t think Romney can change the entire trajectory of the campaign at the debate,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “But he can jump-start that change.”
Despite ongoing efforts by both camps to tamp down debate expectations, there’s no question that the event will have bearing on the public consciousness. According to Nielsen estimates, 52.7 million people watched the first match-up between Mr. Obama and McCain in the 2008 presidential contest - and that was down 16 percent from the first presidential debate in 2004, when 62.5 million people tuned in.
Given the stakes, both candidates have been assiduously preparing.
Romney has spent several days over the last month prepping with senior advisers and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who is playing the president in preparatory sessions, and dedicated three days during the Democratic National Convention to mock debates with the senator.
And even while the Obama campaign said the president had to cancel several sessions due to events in the Middle East, he headed to Nevada earlier this week to log some serious prep time with 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who is standing in for Romney in practice debates.
Eager though each campaign may be to claim underdog status—and both have proven exceptionally eager to do just that in recent weeks—by many accounts it’s Romney who has the most ground to make up going into the event.
“Romney doesn’t need to try to win the election [tonight],” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist now at the University of Southern California. “There are never magical transformational moments in a presidential debate that’s going to fundamentally remake the race. But for a challenger, being on the stage toe-to-toe with an incumbent is an important opportunity to prove that you can be trusted with the responsibilities of the presidency.”
Schmidt argues that, thanks to missed opportunities at the Republican convention, Romney still faces the task of defining himself and his vision to the American people. Moreover, some analysts argue he must also use the platform as an opportunity to woo new voters - including some of Mr. Obama’s - if he wants to make a play for swing states like Ohio, where some recent polls show him outside the margin of victory.
“Not only does he have to stand side by side with the president and just get through it, so to speak, he’s also going to have to change some minds,” said Democratic strategist Michael Feldman, who advised Al Gore in his 2000 presidential bid.
According to Feldman, it’s critical that Romney present his own policy ideas while effectively challenging the president’s record - all without sacrificing his gravitas. Given his past struggles relating to everyday Americans, that’s something he isn’t sure will come easily to the candidate.
“He hasn’t quite connected to voters yet on a variety of levels,” Feldman said. “And it’s hard when you’re delivering a hard hit on your opponent to come across as being likeable at the same time. But that’s what he has to do.”
“The problem Romney has is, you never want the words ‘make-or-break’ associated with your name. So here he is under so much pressure from the media and his supporters and his donors to really deliver something, and yet it’s really hard to do that,” said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University and the author of “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV.” “He has expectations that are in some ways lower, because he’s the underdog, but in some ways they’re higher - because there’s so much pressure on him to succeed.”
Romney, of course, is not alone in facing challenges. The president’s backers have noted repeatedly that his rhetorical style doesn’t mesh with the traditional debate format, and efforts to lower expectations on his behalf went unrewarded: According to a recent Pew Research study, a majority of voters - 51 percent - think the president will win the debate, while only 29 percent said the same of Romney.
To boot, debate moderator Jim Lehrer is also playing with a looser format—which may not be the ideal set-up for a president known for speaking in long, complex sentences.
“The fact is, the president is a smart guy and his rhetorical style is that he likes to explain things,” said Feldman. “If his challenge is to be brief then maybe some structure is helpful for that.”
“The double-edge of the expectations sword for President Obama right now is that people are expecting him to do better ... which makes his job tougher,” Feldman said. A function of those expectations, he says, is that the bar is higher for the president than it is for his rival.
When it comes to preparedness, however, Romney is expected to have the edge.
“Romney’s strengths are experience and preparedness. He has spent a lot of time preparing for these debates, by all accounts, over the course of the summer. And he’s had a lot of experience over the last four years participating in these debates,” said Schmidt. “When you watch the arc of his progress - from 2008 to 2012 - it’s clear he has the capacity for improvement and he gets better. Obama simply hasn’t participated in the number of debates that Romney has, and he hasn’t, by all accounts, spent the time preparing that Mitt Romney has.”
Nevertheless, Simmons argues that despite expectations and his proclivity for long-winded answers, the president’s biggest responsibility tonight is “to not drop the ball in any significant way.”
“A tie is perfectly fine for the president,” he said. “The pressure is clearly on Governor Romney to change the dynamic. The president needs to do no harm.”
At this point, there’s only so much either candidate can do to prepare. But according to Simmons, there are a few last-minute nuggets of advice that apply to all debaters - Republican or Democrat.
“Wear good makeup. Don’t sigh. Don’t look at your watch,” he said. “Those things are probably point number one.”