The first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Wednesday, October 3, is expected to be the steel cage match of the political season. They'll meet again on October 16 and October 22. TV Guide Magazine asked experts who have been on the front lines of past presidential campaigns to tell us what to expect — and what the candidates need to do to win.
ROMNEY MUST STRIKE EARLY
If Romney remains behind in the polls in the battleground states, the first match up will be "do or die" for the Republicans, says Nicolle Wallace, a senior adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential bid who is now an analyst for ABC News. "There is no other opportunity for him to shake up the race." First impressions matter more than ever as early voting has already begun in 30 states. "Some people are probably going out to the polls after they watch the first or second debate," adds CNN analyst Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign.
GAFFES CAN BE GAME-CHANGING
Both candidates have a track record of making clumsy statements (see: Romney's "47 percent" remarks to campaign donors and Obama's "You didn't build that.") Spoken in front of a massive debate audience, such comments become more than cable news fodder. "When 60 million Americans are watching and somebody says something off the cuff that is inarticulate — that can be very powerful," says Matthew Dowd, an ABC News contributor who was chief strategist in George W. Bush's 2004 campaign. Romney has more at risk.
"Especially with some of the issues he's trying to reverse," says Brazile. "Viewers will be asking, 'Does he understand people like me?' If he comes across with something like, 'I like firing people,' that would be devastating."
THE PRESIDENT HAS TO STAY COOL, BUT NOT TOO COOL
Look for Romney to attempt to get under Obama's skin and make him less likable. "Obama sometimes looks irritated and annoyed and peeved," says Wallace. "There is an opportunity for Romney to look like the good, smart, earnest student by comparison." Brazile says the president has to humanize himself and his record. "The constitutional lawyer cannot show up," she says. "The president has to avoid sounding like a Washington insider. He has to put a face on the people he has helped."
LOW EXPECTATIONS WILL HELP ROMNEY
The Obama campaign has depicted Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire businessman. Late-night comics portray him as heartless and hapless. The debates give Romney a chance to surprise viewers who haven't yet been paying close attention. It's happened before. The bar could not have been lower for Ronald Reagan, who was seen by many as an ill-informed shallow actor with an itchy nuclear trigger finger by the time he faced Jimmy Carter in their only 1980 debate. "Reagan not only answered questions, but he seemed in command of the facts," Brazile says. Wallace, who also handled communications for George W. Bush's reelection campaign, recalls how the Republicans ran up a significant lead in 2004 after defining Sen. John Kerry as an effete, windsurfing flip-flopper. But "when Kerry stood on stage with Bush in the debates, he had a real command of foreign policy, as we knew he would, and it knocked Bush's poll numbers down 13 points," she says.
EXPECT A BATTLE ROYALE BETWEEN THE RUNNING MATES
When the vice presidential candidates debate on October 11, don't expect to see the restrained Joe Biden who debated Sarah Palin in 2008. "He's a vice president who's very unscripted and very passionate," says Dowd. "In Paul Ryan you have a young guy who has a complete sense and clarity about what he believes is right and wrong. He won't back down." While Biden is prone to foot-in-mouth moments, fact-checkers will be gunning for Ryan after his sketchy GOP convention speech. "A narrative has started to build for him that he'll say stuff that is not necessarily based on the truth," says Dowd.
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE
"Because of experience, I'd bet on Obama and Biden," says Dowd. "They've been through this on a national level. They don't have to bone up on a lot of stuff." But Brazile notes that Romney was formidable during the primary debates. "He was the most prepared candidate," she recalls. "He was well-rested and always came across cleared-eyed and focused." Get out the popcorn!