The arrival of the first debate means one thing: the end of the debate expectations game. It’s not a game so much as a chore. When aides to presidential candidates are forced to downplay their boss’ debating skills, it’s an embarrassment for everyone concerned: the candidate being dressed in short pants and the press corps who has to treat the game like it's news. It’s particularly sad for the campaign official who plays this charade knowing that the moment the debate ends he will switch immediately to boasting about his boss' superhuman performance. When the candidates themselves engage in the expectations-management game, as they both have, it does not instill confidence.
The expectations game is a sham, which is too bad because the debates are already pretty full of nonsense. The answers are typically thin and after they are traded, aides from both parties engage in a furious round of spinning not connected to reality. Nominally the exercise is related to the debate that just transpired, but the script is already written. After each debate, the campaigns will be making the same arguments that they have been making for months. It's just up to the candidates to produce material during the 90 minutes that helps their handlers make the case. For Mitt Romney, the task is to present his policies in a way that is appealing and specific enough that voters can imagine their lives getting better. President Obama has to reiterate the message that he has been offering for months: He's working hard and the recovery, while slow, will pick up as long as the country doesn't flirt with embracing the GOP again.
In a perfect performance, the candidate will say something in sync with his larger campaign’s themes that is also clever and otherwise repeatable. Such a line will dominate the airwaves, and echo across Twitter and Facebook. For the next day or so it will get passed around by parents picking up their kids at karate practice or mentioned by the office mensch during a pause in the break room. The linkage between performance and message is key. While one candidate’s clever line may get repeated, if it doesn’t serve the larger campaign message, then it’s just entertainment.
Here's where the political situation stands going into the first debate. The Realclearpolitics national average of polls show Obama with a 3.2 point lead over Romney. The average of polls in some battleground states shows the president with a slightly larger lead. (5.5 in Ohio; 5.2 in Nevada) Romney has been on the defensive for the last few weeks. Not only has he been battling to regain his message from his spotty response to the Libya attacks and the release of a secretly recorded video in which he disparaged Obama voters, but he's also battling to figure out what his message is. Is he going to focus just on the economy? Or does he have an opening on foreign policy issues? Monday night in Denver he was in many places at once, talking about all of those things, plus union ballots and Solyndra.
In a sense, Romney’s team won the expectations-management game: The public thinks Obama will win the debate. According to a Pew Research survey, 51 percent to 29 percent think Obama will fare better on Wednesday night. The people, once again, are wise. Of course, Obama should be expected to do better. He is well-schooled in high-pressure, high-stress performances. He's not a great debater, but he's done many more stressful things during his time as president. For Mitt Romney, on the other hand, this is arguably the most stressful thing he has ever done in his life. People find the president more likable, according to the polls, so the audience is more likely to be on his side. And, he is ahead in the polls. If it's a tie, Obama wins.
What Romney has learned in the course of the general election is that this election is not simply going to be a referendum on Obama. If it were, Obama would be losing. In a strange way, because of Romney's comments about the 47 percent who won’t vote for him, the race has become a referendum on Romney. Obama won’t simply crumble if he is asked about the economy and just repeats his talking points. That means Romney has two jobs: He has to prove that change is necessary and that he's the guy who can bring that change.
Mitt Romney also faces challenges that have nothing to do with Obama. For the last several months, Romney has been getting advice about how to change his campaign. Should he get more specific? Should he attack more forcefully? He has tried some new gambits, and there appears to be some confusion about the way forward to the finish line. The New York Times quotes a Romney staffer speaking favorably about the simplicity of Barack Obama’s slogan “forward.” On the stump Monday night, Romney made fun of the slogan. (The slogan, he said, “should be: forewarned!”)
When you ask politicians who have competed in debates, they will tell you is that the most helpful preparation is the campaign itself. If you've campaigned on the same platform, consistently returning to the same well of core beliefs, you know how to handle any question. But if you're in the middle of a course correction, or run a fishtailing campaign, then you've made things harder because the nutty debate environment is no place to perfect your new script.
Debates are particularly unnatural for the challenger because he has to do more on stage. He's got to make a good impression, connect with voters, show them he has values like their own, and deploy zingers that he and his staff have cooked up while making it look like the zingers are spontaneous. It's like batting in Little League with both your parents, the coach, and your best friend Will all giving you different advice before you get to the plate.
Romney is a very smart guy. He's not likely to forget a Cabinet agency he wants to cut (though his aversion to specificity may make him reluctant to say it). During the primary debates, Romney showed that he knows his stuff. Remember how he memorized the details of Newt Gingrich's investments and used them to string up the helpless former speaker? Romney was so good, he rendered Gingrich speechless.
The challenge for Romney will be overmodulation. During the Republican primaries, when there was a competition to see who could beat up on the president the most, Romney turned into a cartoon of an attack dog. He vowed that in the general election he would take capitalism to the president and “stuff it down his throat.” The line was out of keeping with Romney's demeanor and flirted with making him look highly insincere. That's not a good thing for a candidate who is having trouble connecting with voters who don't trust him.
President Obama has to worry about complacency and arrogance. Romney is trying to win over disappointed Obama 2008 voters, which is why Monday night in Colorado he finished a rally by asking voters to "go out and find an Obama voter and convince them to join our team." Romney has to offer a better way to that pool of 24 percent of voters who have told Gallup they support Obama but that the debate might change their mind. One route to those voters is if the president walks into the caricature that Romney has been trying to paint of a chief executive over his head who has settled for a middling recovery.
Of course, Obama's team knows this is a vulnerability. For months, Obama has been pledging that he wakes up every day fighting for the middle class. The president must convey that sentiment above all else, while defending his record.
The other big problem for the president is arrogance. He thinks he’s the smartest fellow in the room, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. He snickered at Romney’s lack of foreign policy experience in his convention speech and then dismissed him after the attack on the Libyan embassy as “shooting first and asking questions later.” Subsequent revisions of the Obama administration’s statements on Egypt and Libya suggest a half-empty presidential bandoleer. Voters may be tolerant of the president, but arrogance might test that tolerance.
Of all the issues that will be debated after the debate—from taxes to job creation to housing to Medicare—one final topic of dispute will be the shape of the race the morning after. For many in the political class, Wednesday night’s debate is Romney’s last chance. Time is running out. Early voting has already started in some key states and donors are watching nervously. Will they keep giving money to the cause if Romney looks like a loser? On the other hand, there will be two more presidential debates and two more jobs reports coming out before Election Day. The days are drawing short, but there will still be a few more venues left to surpass people’s expectations.
Watch: Political Kombat, the 2012 campaign told through video game fights.