1st Presidential Debate

October 3, 2012

ANALYSIS: It's Romney's offense vs. Obama's defense

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- As many as 50 million Americans are expected to tune in tonight for the first face-to-face debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger.

Historians suggest that televised debates rarely decide a presidential election. But memorable one-liners (Ronald Reagan's "There he goes again"), uncouth mannerisms (think a sweaty Richard Nixon or a sighing Al Gore) and long-winded, wonky answers can shape public perception.

The first of the three presidential debates will be about domestic affairs but expect both candidates to try to bring up other issues to make themselves look good and the other guy look bad. Here's an (unscientific) list of things to watch out for in Round 1 of Obama vs. Romney:

Obama

* Playing it safe: As the front-runner, Obama has the most to lose by coming off as too aggressive or unveiling potentially controversial initiatives. He also appears to score higher than Romney on the always-important "likeability" index. For those reasons, many observers believe the president will play on the safer side yet defend his record against the inevitable attacks.

"I think his challenge, first of all, is to protect his lead," said Alan Schroeder, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV."

"So this may not be the opportune time for big, bold departures from what he has said previously."

* Tax cuts: Congress punted on whether to extend tax cuts for pretty much all Americans (Republican plan) or only those making less than $250,000 a year (Democratic and Obama plan). Expect to see Obama continue his mantra that Romney would cut taxes for the rich and enact a budget plan that raises taxes for the middle class.

"Meanwhile, there has been very little scrutiny of President Obama's tax plan ... and hopefully Romney will ask questions about it," said William McBride, chief economist at the conservative Tax Foundation.

* Obamacare and Medicare: The president will likely have to defend a health reform law that remains unpopular with many Americans. At the same time, voters appear hesitant to embrace major changes to Medicare and Medicaid as advocated by Romney and running mate Paul Ryan.

Overall, Brookings Institution senior fellow Henry Aaron believes the advantage goes to Obama. "Romney is in a difficult position of having been for it before he was against it," Aaron said of Romney's support of similar health care reforms while Massachusetts governor. "I think there is a lot of confusion with respect to where Mitt Romney is on Medicaid and Medicare."

* Jobs, or lack thereof: Moderator Jim Lehrer is certain to ask the president about the lingering high unemployment rate and lackluster job creation numbers. It's been the central theme of the Romney campaign thus far, so expect Obama to be on the defensive as he attempts to convince Americans how much worse it could have been without his administration's actions.

"His goal will be to raise the number of voters who blame Bush, not him, for our economic circumstances," Frank Donatelli, chairman of the Republican organization GOPAC and part of several past presidential debate-preparation teams, told Politico recently.

* Demeanor: Although great at the stump speech, Obama can be long-winded and prone to getting lost in the weeds when it comes to policy. That's a habit his debate team is trying to break. At the same time, expect the president to try to come across as assertive yet cool under Romney salvos.

Romney

* Playing hardball: Trailing in the polls, Romney is expected to be on the offensive for much of the debate, especially when it comes to the president's job creation record. Of course, being too aggressive has risks, too. But Northeastern's Schroeder said this is Romney's chance to "make the sale."

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