President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney will spend an hour and a half sharing the stage at the University of Denver sports arena on Wednesday evening.
Since the 60s, presidential debates have not been known to have revolutionary impact on the state of the race - usually the candidate who is leading in polls ultimately wins. The debates might be hugely overrated, and some would admit they can be quite boring, when even the spontaneous punchlines are carefully rehearsed. One certainly can't blame them. The candidates are trying to walk the fine line, look relaxed and human, without providing material for the Youtube clips that could become one of those embarrassing moments, embedded in history.
One notable example was in 1988, when Michael Dukakis coolly answered a question about his wife potentially being raped and murdered by revealing his position on capital punishment position. Another was former President Bush peeking at his watch mid-debate in 1992, and the Democratic candidate Al Gore's theatrical sighs, or his walking in an intimidating manner toward his rival George W. Bush during the debates in 2000.
Scripted as it is, there is still room for mistakes, and both candidates' every move will be watched under a magnifying glass. Can Mitt Romney get rid of his half-smile half-grimace, while listening to something he doesn't like? Will Barack Obama have any gaffe akin to his 2008 primaries "You are likable enough, Hillary"? Both candidates complimented each others' debating skills, both camps took an effort to lower expectations for their candidate's performance (except for the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who predicted the debate to be a game changer). Both will go on stage, dragging a heavy sack of problematic quotes that could put them instantly on the defense - not the best position to be in while trying to sell your vision for the country.
Barack Obama will make his case that the country (contrary to what most Americans think) is moving the in the right direction, and he just needs more time to finish what he started. Mitt Romney will have to prove that despite his "47%" remarks at the Florida fundraiser in May, he can actually be the President of all Americans - not the 53%, not the 1%, not only the Small Business Owners President. The first debate, which will be moderated by former PBS host Jim Lehrer, will focus on domestic issues, such as the economy, health care, governing and government.
As an incumbent, Barack Obama faces a risk of coming across as arrogant; he is very self-aware, but he does not come face-to-face on a daily basis with people who accuse his policies of degrading the country. Mitt Romney's biggest problem is not being likable enough, inspiring enough, or even consistent enough in his policies. Intensive preparations for the debate (with Senator Rob Portman as Barack Obama) might attempt to resolve the last point, but he will still have a problem with the first two.
Most Americans already heard both sides arguments (at the swing states, some will complain they heard too much of it). But the current race, at least at the level of the national polls, is close, and tens of millions of ordinary citizens in the U.S. are expected to be glued to their TV screens, and betting on how many times a candidate will use a key expression (in 2008, "maverick" was a particularly popular bet). In order for the debates to make a big difference, a big mistake by Obama or a truly brilliant performance by Romney are needed. It's not clear whether the debates will help to cure the lack of excitement, especially among younger voters, in comparison with the 2008 elections, during which there was a higher level of voter engagement.
It's safe to assume that both candidates would probably prefer to spend Wednesday evening somewhere else: for the Obama couple, it's their twentieth anniversary. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney faces extremely low expectations. According to the Pew Research Center poll, 51% of the respondents said they expected Obama to win, while only 29% were willing to back Romney's performance.
Speaking to reporters in Las Vegas, where the President was preparing for the debate over the past two days, Jen Psaki, the Obama campaign's spokesperson, gave a taste of what the Democratic candidate might stress during Wednesday's face-off: "Mitt Romney has been telling all of you for months that he has not financially benefited from his offshore holdings and tax havens in places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Today, The New York Times reported that, in fact, he has benefited financially. We look forward to hearing what he has to say. We're not suggesting that's illegal. It's more that it's a call for the need for tax reform, and it raises the question to people who will be watching at home tomorrow night why they're paying a higher rate than one of the presidential candidates."
Psaki also pointed to the report by The Commonwealth Fund, saying that 72 million people would be uninsured under Mitt Romney’s health care plan. "Basically, his slogan is 'make things worse for health care across America.' He’s also said he would veto the Affordable Care Act, which means costs would go up for seniors; cancer screenings, mammograms that are happening for women would not happen; and people with preexisting conditions would be left without options," Psaki said.
The Republican camp one day before the debate got an unexpected gift - one of the infamously spectacular gaffes of Vice President Joe Biden. Speaking at a campaign event in Charlotte, North Carolina, Biden attacked the Republicans, and then said: "How they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that's been buried the last four years? How in the lord's name can they justify raising their taxes with these tax cuts?" Mitt Romney (probably, his team) commented in his Twitter account that he agrees with Biden: "The middle class has been buried the last 4 years, which is why we need a change in November #CantAfford4More".
The first debate between the presidential candidates will focus on domestic policy issues, but the Republicans are also stepping up their attack on the Obama administration's foreign policy. This week, in a Wall Street Journal, Presidential nominee Mitt Romney accused the president of offering no strategy to deal with the turmoil in the Middle East and undermining Israel.
Previous criticism of the Republicans focused on the Obama Administration's response to the attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The argument was that the officials were slow to admit it was part of the well-planned attack by radical Islamists because it undermined the president's narrative of defeating Al-Qaida and minimizing threats to the U.S.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of State spokesman Victoria Nuland also had to defend against criticism of the House Foreign Affairs committee Chair, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who lashed out at the administration for the meeting of the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman with Lebanese Energy Minister Gebran Bassil.
"The fact that one the State Department's highest ranking officials met with Bassil - one of Hezbollah's most stalwart allies - is beyond indefensible," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "A supporter of Assad and Hezbollah has no place meeting with U.S. officials. The Administration chooses to meet with the likes of Bassil while giving the cold shoulder to our closest ally, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Administration must explain its actions to the American people; we demand answers and deserve no less. "
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland responded on Tuesday that in U.S. officials meetings with government representatives, "We always express our deep concern about Hezbollah's destabilizing actions, both in Lebanon and in the region."
"Undersecretary Sherman again raised our ongoing concern about Hezbollah's actions, including its support for the Syrian regime, its role as a terrorist organization and a proxy for Iran and its criminal activities in the international drug trade and money laundering. Minister Bassil is a member of the Free Patriotic Movement Party in Lebanon, which is a member of the ruling coalition. He's the energy minister. We've talked to members of the coalition and we have to work with the sitting minister if we want to work on these kinds of problems," she said.
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