8 Questions

Dan Balz on what to expect
in the presidential debates

Question 1: What’s at stake in the first debate in Denver?

First debates usually attract the biggest audience, and so for both President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, this is a high-stakes event. But it’s clearly much bigger for Romney.

The presidential race remains close in a number of national polls, including the latest Washington Post-ABC News survey, which showed Obama head 49 percent to 47 percent among likely voters. But recent polls in many of the battleground states show Obama with a lead.

Republican strategist Brett O’Donnell notes that both campaigns are now competing for a small slice of undecided voters in the swing states, and he framed the opening debate this way:

“Can Mitt Romney convince those voters that President Obama is to blame for present economic conditions and that things are getting worse, or can President Obama convince voters that we’re headed in the right direction and to change now would endanger a fragile recovery? The first debate and the first 30 minutes of the first debate are the most important.”

The past few weeks have not been good for Romney’s candidacy. Given that Romney has to win virtually all the battleground states to get to 270 electoral votes, the president will walk on stage Wednesday at the University of Denver as the perceived leader. That puts the onus on the challenger to come out of the first debate judged the winner.

As Democrat Tad Devine said of Romney, “He is running out of runway.”

Romney is getting tons of advice — be aggressive, be presidential, attack, offer vision, provide details, show empathy. There is only so much he can do in 90 minutes. Above all, he needs to emerge from the first debate with a performance that makes voters give him a fresh look—and with new doubts about the president.