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Workers prepare the set for the presidential debate
President Barack Obama and rival Mitt Romney will meet Wednesday night in the first of three debates, one that political analysts say has more potential to break than to make either candidate--if it moves voters at all.
Obama needs a debate with no gaffes, while Romney has the tougher job of being aggressive while still looking presidential.
Christopher Newport University political analyst Quentin Kidd said that for Obama, a boring debate is best.
"If we wake up on Thursday morning and it's been a snoozer of a debate, it was a draw or nothing exciting happened or the dynamics of the campaign are the same, then that is to Obama's benefit, because he goes in ahead," Kidd said.
But a boring debate isn't good for Romney, said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.
"Romney needs a real boost. He has got to come out fighting, with a powerful critique of Obama's presidency," Sabato said. "At the same time, Romney has to be personally appealing and find a way to connect with the average person--something he has not yet been able to do."
Kidd said he thinks Romney needs to be aggressive but also tempered, because he needs to present himself as the same candidate voters have seen at the convention and on the campaign trail.
"If he comes across as yet a different Mitt Romney, that's a problem," Kidd said.
He thinks Romney must not approach this debate as a single event, but remember that he has three debates in which to present his candidacy and his message.
"You need to have a really strong first game. You need to stand your own and you need to take it to the president, but this isn't all-in-one right here," Kidd said. "If he tries to swing for home runs all night long, then I think that's going to be a problem for him."
This debate will focus on domestic issues, a potential problem for Obama, Kidd said, if the focus stays only on policies under Obama's administration instead of shifting toward a comparison of Obama's policies and Romney's proposals.
Kidd said former President Bill Clinton's convention speech did for Obama what Obama himself hasn't been able to do: It "gave leaning Democrats and some independents an intellectual reason to give Obama a second term."
"He needs to develop that rather than letting Mitt Romney put him on the defensive," Kidd said. "Obama's in trouble if the focus isn't on comparison between Romney and Obama, and if Obama's not developing that narrative."
Of course, both candidates have things they want to avoid. Obama, Sabato said, must "avoid signs of dismissal and arrogance," while Romney must find the balance of attacking without being overly negative.
Debates rarely sway large number of voters--mostly, Sabato said, "partisans tune in to cheer for their side"--but they do offer both candidates the opportunity to mess up.
Kidd recalled John McCain's calling Obama "that one" during a debate.
"It really hurt him, it became what people talked about," Kidd said. "That's the kind of stuff that could really hurt either one of them."
To that end, he said, Obama needs to avoid showing irritation, Romney to avoid acting robotic.
"I don't think either one will have an easy time putting the other one in a spot offensively," Kidd said. "It's going to be hard for them to score on the other guy, but it's going to be easy for them to let the other guy score on them."
The first debate will be held at the University of Denver and moderated by PBS anchor Jim Lehrer.
The second is Oct. 16 at Hofstra University and will be moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley; the third is Oct. 22 at Lynn University, moderated by CBS' Bob Schieffer.
All three run from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern time, and will be carried by all the major networks, the cable news channels and C-SPAN.
A debate between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will be held Oct. 11 at Centre College in Kentucky, moderated by ABC's Martha Raddatz. It, too, will air from 9 to 10:30 p.m.
Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028
TOPIC: Domestic policy
WHEN: Wednesday, 9-10:30 p.m. Eastern time
WHERE: University of Denver
MODERATOR: Jim Lehrer, Host of "NewsHour" on PBS
BROADCAST: C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC; cable news channels including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC