The fierce and determined competitors in the tight race have a specific mission for the three debates, the first of which is Wednesday night in Denver.
Obama, no longer the fresh face of 2008, must convince skeptical Americans that he can accomplish in a second term what he couldn’t in his first, restoring the economy to full health.
Romney, anxious to keep the race from slipping away, needs to instill confidence that he is a credible and trusted alternative to the president, with a better plan for strengthening the economy.
“The burden in many ways is heavier on Romney,” says Wayne Fields, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in political rhetoric. “What we see right now is an uncertainty about whether he’s ready for the job.”
For all the hundreds of campaign appearances, thousands of political ads and billions of dollars invested in the race, this is a singular moment in the contest. Upward of 50 million people are expected to watch each of the debates, drawing the largest political audience of the year.
Forty-one percent of Americans reported watching all of the 2008 debates, and 80 percent said they saw at least a bit, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
That intense interest tends to crowd out everything else for a time, adding to the debates’ importance. With polls indicating that Obama has been gaining ground steadily in the most competitive states, the pressure is on Romney to turn in a breakout performance.
The Denver debate, 90 minutes devoted to domestic policy, airs live at 9 p.m., with the two men seated side by side in elevated director’s chairs. Romney and Obama debate again Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan have their lone debate Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.