8 Questions

Dan Balz on what to expect
in the presidential debates

Question 6: How can these encounters produce the "big debate" that both candidates say they want?

This is a big election but it’s not been a big campaign. There are major differences between Obama and Romney, and between Democrats and Republicans, as the polarized debate in Washington shows. But small issues and sideshows have often dominated the campaign.

“Let’s be serious,” Lynn Vavreck said. “Neither of them really wants the ‘big debate.’ If they did they’d be bringing rhetoric to the campaign that portends a big debate on something important, anything important.”

“Lincoln-Douglas was a big debate series,” said Steve Murphy. “There are rarely big debates these days. Candidates are not nearly as intellectually honest and they are trained like doctors--first do no harm.”

Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate suggested the campaign might become a more elevated debate about government’s role, the future of entitlement programs and the best way to assure more robust economic growth.

So far it hasn’t happened, and it may be up to the debate moderators to try to prod the candidates to spend less time on stock lines and well-practiced rhetoric and have a real dialogue about the future.

“If [the moderator] stops the candidates from reverting to their talking points and rehearsed attack lines and pivots, it’s possible that something resembling a great debate will take place,” said Nicole Wallace, who was White House communications director for President George W. Bush.

Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, agreed. “The moderators need to press both candidates to expand on their positions on major issues to get them beyond their talking points,” he said.