The debate questions Obama and Romney would like to get

Tuesday night’s presidential debate will be the most wide-ranging and possibly the most unpredictable of the three showdowns between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

With both foreign and domestic issues on the agenda and initial questions being asked by undecided voters — selected by the Gallup organization and moderator Candy Crowley — it’s hard to know exactly which direction the debate will take.

But recent speeches and ads by Romney and Obama make it fairly clear the topics the candidates would prefer to talk about. When the debate begins at 6 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday at Hofstra University on Long Island, Romney will be hoping for questions like these:

— What will you do to bring America’s $16-trillion debt under control?

— What went wrong at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya?

— How would you create more jobs for Americans?

— What can you do to lower gas prices?

Obama would prefer a markedly different focus and questions like these:

— Can you defend government bailouts of private companies, particularly the auto industry?

— What can you say to show you have a plan for Americans who are unemployed or under-employed?

— How does your tax plan differ from Romney’s?

— Describe any limits you think should be place on a woman’s ability to get an abortion?

Count on some, or all, of these topics coming up Tuesday. If they don’t, the candidates will steer the conversation to their preferred ground anyway.

Romney will pummel away at one theme all night: Obama had his chance and he just hasn’t done enough. Too many Americans still don’t have jobs. Gas prices keep getting higher. Uprisings in the Muslim world have gotten out of control and the Obama administration doesn’t seem to have an answer. Romney, the former private equity magnate and onetime governor of Massachusetts, will say he understands average Americans and can make their lives better.

Obama will argue that he’s begun to pull the country out of a tremendous toll and it’s no time to take a chance on the unknown — a candidate famous for switching positions. He’ll say America has added jobs for 30 straight months — 4.6 million in all. He’s also likely to wonder how much Romney — who told a group of fat-cat contributors that nearly half of Americans are “victims” who don’t take personal responsibility — really cares about the common people.

Twitter: @latimesrainey