Romney, Obama square off in first presidential debate

President Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate in Denver.
(Pool photo)

DENVER -- Mitt Romney is lagging in the polls, but he was set to take the stage at Wednesday night’s debate against President Obama with some key advantages that could help him catch up.

The Republican candidate was in position to surprise the public with a strong performance; recent polls showed that most voters expected Obama to get the better of his opponent. But Romney performed well in the 19 Republican primary-season debates, often coming across as presidential and rarely slipping up.

Another factor that figured to work to Romney’s benefit: A challenger typically has a built-in edge in the first presidential debate. Merely sharing the stage with the president helps to close any stature gap in voters’ minds.

In the pre-debate spin, the Obama camp underscored that point, as both sides worked overtime to limit any gain by the other side. “If history tells us anything, it’s that, as the challenger, Mitt Romney is likely to be called the winner by pundits,” deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said in memo to reporters.


At the same time, Romney faced substantially greater pressure than Obama heading into the 90-minute encounter. For a trailing candidate, simply holding one’s own isn’t good enough.

With less than five weeks until election day, most opinion surveys show Obama with a small but persistent lead nationally and in swing states that will decide the contest. By contrast, Romney has never been ahead of Obama in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls dating back to the start of the year.

That gap has made it increasingly imperative for the Republican to shift the balance of the contest against the vulnerable incumbent. Obama has improved his job approval ratings and has come close to the key 50% level in national polls. But voters continue to say that the country is on the wrong track, though that measure has also been moving slowly in Obama’s direction.

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Even Republicans said it was unlikely that Romney could accomplish the turnaround he needed in the debates.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, co-director of the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, said in an analysis of the latest presidential polling that it “would take an episode of some magnitude to disrupt the structural lock in these numbers.” Obama led Romney by 3 percentage points, 49% to 46%, among likely voters in the survey, released Tuesday.

As Obama prepared for his first debate in four years, he joked about “zingers,” the rehearsed lines that both men were coached to deliver. But the greatest threat to his reelection chances from the debates is unlikely to come from something Romney says.

The biggest danger for the front-runner is an unforced error—a major gaffe along the lines of President Ford’s Cold War-era blunder, when he said in a 1976 debate that there “is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that Poland and other countries of the region were under Soviet control at the time.


Obama has committed several minor gaffes in the course of his 2012 campaign, but he has no history of committing a debate howler of the sort that could upend the race. Given his lead in the polls, he could afford to take a cautious approach as the October debates get underway.

Colorado, one of the small number of battleground states, is the scene of the first debate, and security for the event is unusually strict. A six-mile portion of Interstate 25, the state’s main north-south route, was scheduled to be closed for five hours at the height of the evening rush in Denver. The superhighway passes a few hundred yards from the debate hall, Magness Arena, a hockey and basketball venue on the University of Denver campus.

Longtime PBS anchor Jim Lehrer is the moderator for the initial encounter. In a departure from the norm, he announced the topics two weeks in advance: three 15-minute segments on the economy, and three others on healthcare and governance. But he also left open the possibility that late-breaking developments could force a change.

The recent killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya has injected international affairs into a campaign that had been expected to revolve almost exclusively around persistently high U.S. unemployment and a slow recovery from the worst recession since the Depression.


INTERACTIVE: Battleground states map

Foreign policy is to be the subject of the third presidential debate, in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 22. Obama and Romney will also meet Oct. 16, in a town-hall style debate on New York’s Long Island. Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Romney’s running mate, will debate Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.

Relatively few voters are still undecided, but a slightly larger group remains weakly attached to either man. Results of the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggest that about 5% of the electorate falls into the category that both men will be attempting to sway: voters who are still up for grabs and who say that the debates will be extremely or quite important in their choice of a candidate.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized the fall debates in every election since 1988, negotiated rules for this year’s encounters with representatives of the Obama and Romney campaigns. A number of organizations from across the political spectrum have unsuccessfully sought to have the debate contract made public. An earlier contract, between the George W. Bush and John F. Kerry campaigns in 2004, forbade the candidates from questioning each other. The current contract is reported to include provisions including a ban on cheering by members of the audience and a limit on the number of family members allowed onstage after it ends.


In 2008, the opening debate of the general election campaign was viewed by about 52 million people. If this year’s trend of declining audiences for political events, such as the national party conventions, are an indication, Wednesday night’s debate may attract smaller viewership than the first one four years ago.

But history has shown that it is often post-debate coverage, which plays out for several days afterward, that has a more substantial impact on voters than the debate itself. Specific answers, or even symbolic moves by one of the candidates, can take on outsized importance as they are recycled in news accounts, a process that could be intensified this year by the rise of social media.

In 2000, Al Gore suffered self-inflicted damage from his repeated sighs while his opponent, George W. Bush, answered debate questions. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush was caught checking his watch during a three-way debate with Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot, an instant that prompted days of criticism of a president deemed to have been out of touch with ordinary voters.

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