8 Questions

Dan Balz on topics that will shape the 2012 campaign in the final 100 days

Question 7: How important are the debates likely to be this year?

That depends on whether you think debates ever really matter. They certainly mattered during the Republican nomination contest in the winter. Those 20 debates shaped the campaign and the fortunes of many of the candidates. Think Rick Perry.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan used his debate against Jimmy Carter to turn the election decisively in his direction. But some scholars say debates matter less than people think. "There just isn't much evidence that debates move the polls, or that any movement is truly consequential for who wins the race," said John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University.

Still, no one will be preparing for the debates as if they aren't potential turning points. In a close election, every encounter carries opportunities and risks. Bombarded by ads, voters may be looking for another way to evaluate Obama and Romney. "The three televised debates afford the only chance for undecided voters to do some unvarnished, unfiltered comparison shopping," said Bill Whalen of the Hoover Institution.

The first debate will be on Oct. 3 in Denver, the last on Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. Both candidates have shown strong debating skills. For Romney, the debates offer the chance to close the stature gap with an incumbent president. For Obama, they provide an opportunity to impress on voters that the election is a choice, not a referendum.

Decisive or not, the debates will dominate October.