Wednesday evening, President Obama and Governor Romney will face off in the first of three head-to-head debates in front of the American people. The first, taking place at the University of Denver, will focus on domestic issues. Six separate segments of 15 minutes will occur, each focusing on a different subject, and will offer the candidates their opportunity to find and exploit the proverbial chinks in the proverbial armor of their opponent's messages.
In the spirit of competition, here's a breakdown of what each candidate faces going into the first debate. For full coverage of the debate at PolicyMic, make sure to visit my blog covering the event.
Obama: The incumbency certainly has to be viewed as an advantage going into the first debate. While it may seem inconceivable to Republicans that anyone can be pleased with the manner in which Obama has handled the economy, the fact remains that in battleground states like Florida, Obama's receiving some positive news that favors him going into the debate. People are just as likely as not to show some support of his policies.
Romney: Much of Romney's campaign has focused on economic policy. According to some polls, more Americans trust him to improve the nations economy over Obama. Also, some liberals may hate that he's made millions of dollars as a venture capitalist, but he can convey a message of understanding how the difference between government stimulated and privately managed economic growth will benefit more Americans in a much fairer fashion. The emphasis on domestic policy gives Romney an opportunity to begin strong.
Obama: Undoubtedly, he's been polarizing as president, despite rhetoric trying to frame himself otherwise. Then again, that's a wash at worst given Romney is just as polarizing a figure. Obama's biggest weakness going into the first debate is not that he's polarizing, but that the expectations he set as a candidate four years ago are polar opposites of the performances he's demonstrated. According to the Wall Street Journal, back in 2009 during the throws of the recession, the unemployment rate would be back to just over 5% by the end of this year. It hovers at just over 8% right now. Romney has significant ammunition with which to focus on the president's domestic failures.
Romney: For a while, Romney's unwillingness to discuss specifics throughout the general election campaign looked as if it might be his Achilles heel going into the debate. Then again, Romney's controversial Mother Jones video has reframed his campaign messaging back into a defensive posture. His positives, which were already troublesome to begin with, took a hit. Combined with Ryan's Medicare plans that Democrats have been trying to frame as an attack on seniors, Romney could face more attacks on his likeability in the debate.
3. What They Need to Do:
Obama: Obama needs to continue pushing his message that "things are worse without me." Four years ago, he simply needed to convince voters he was a welcome change to George W. Bush. This year, he needs to persuade and show voters that he's done enough to keep our head above water, and that we'll continue to be above water should he be given another four years. Part of that is talking about some job growth, but that also means lighting Romney up about the 47% comments, however out-of-context it might be. Obama's distinct advantage is that he appears to care more about people, and ridiculous as that ethic might be, most Americans want to know they will be taken care of.
Romney: Romney's trailing, but it is like trailing by thirteen points with 8 minutes in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Romney has to be aggressive and relentless in portraying Obama as a failure in the economy. This means he needs to be specific with his own plans, which is certainly a risk that opens him up to criticism. However, he also needs to embrace that risk and dominate Obama on his much more practical understanding of economics as compared to the professorial Obama. His likeability is irrelevant — undecided voters know they don't like him, but they also don't like Obama.
Obama: Republicans across the country have been screaming about fraudulent voters possibly handing Democrats and President Obama unwarranted victories. News is quickly emerging that a firm owned by a Romney consultant is not quite squeaky clean when it comes to voter registration methods either. Should the topic come up during the debate, or if Obama can steer the discussion in such a direction, Romney can again be taken off message and put on the defensive.
Romney: Romney went head to head with a phenomenal debater, albeit a little angry at times, in Newt Gingrich. Romney's debate performance prior to the Florida primary helped launch him to a convincing victory there. Although the Romney team cut ties with the significant reason for that debate performance, Team Romney is certainly smart enough to know what needs to be done given that experience.
Obama has built strong momentum in the preceding weeks, and lowered expectations won't minimize the impact of that should the debate pan out badly for Romney. Romney has some ground to make up and the debates offer the perfect opportunity to do that. Obama comes from the unfortunate position of being the incumbent in an economy which is shows signs of looking more like Japan in the 1990s in a debate focused exclusively on domestic issues.
Candidates have their weaknesses and strengths, but Obama's offers a perfect storm for Romney to exploit should he be willing to focus during the debate. Obama will benefit from general discussions about domestic policy, but Romney will win this debate hands down should be begin discussing specific policy decisions. Look for Romney to take it to Obama and create a clear distinction between the choices voters face.