Tonight, at the University of Denver in Colorado, President Obama and Mitt Romney meet for the first of their three presidential debates. Because the encounter will concentrate solely on domestic policy, it is a vital moment for a Romney campaign that has built its message around dissatisfaction with the President's handling of the economy.
Republicans are hopeful that Mitt Romney, able to speak without the media filtering his arguments, will be able to connect with many Americans in a way that he has been unable to achieve so far. They contend that, bypassing reporters who have become nothing more than a sycophantic adjunct to the Obama Administration, the candidate can put forward his ideas for an economic recovery that helps rather than hurts the middle class, and that he can establish that he is not the heartless plutocrat portrayed by many outlets.
Democrats, of course, see the situation differently. Their pre-debate emphasis is that Romney has extensive debate experience from the Republican primaries, and that as a consequence he should perform strongly in Denver. So, if Romney performs well, he will only have gained a "draw", whereas if President Obama holds his own. he will have "won" the debate.
Amid the pre-debate coverage and spin, little attention has been paid to the format adopted by the Commission on Presidential Debates. To encourage more substantive discussion, CPD have foregone two of the staple elements of the debates in the Republican primaries. The candidates will not stand at a lectern --- instead they will sit at a table with the moderator where, presumably, they will be forced to talk to each other rather than merely lecture the audience.
The other significant change is that there will be no two-minute opening or closing statements. Instead, there will be six 15-minute segments on different topics, each of which will begin with the moderator --- Jim Lehrer of PBS NewsHour --- asking a question to which each man has two minutes to state his position. The remainder of each segment will be taken up by the moderator leading the candidates to discuss the issue at hand.
Whether these changes will substantially affect the performance of Romney or Obama is something that will be determined on the night. But they suggest that the experience Romney gained in his primary battles will not be as useful as has been maintained, and that a frequent criticism of President Obama --- that he tends to lecture on a subject rather than state his position simply --- will be mitigated by the format.
However, Romney may gain an advantage from the ordering of the segments, with a rousing finale for his message. There are three questions on the economy, one on healthcare, and then a question each on "The Role of Government" and "Governing".
The Republican campaign has been keen to make this an ideological election, with the future size of the Government central to the discussion, and Romney now has the chance to take that argument straight to Obama as a central issue. The "Governing" will allow Romney to end the debate with an attack on the President's dismal record in office, deflecting Obama's frequent defence that he is still clearing up the mess left by George W. Bush Administration.
The demographics of this race are coming down to which candidate can convince the small number of undecided voters to break in his direction. While the economy is the vital issue in this campaign, voters have had plenty of time to consider their support for each candidate on that front. So, in the 30 minutes tonight on the role of government and on each candidate's record of governing, we may see the crucial moments of this campaign.
Polls indicate more voters are "disappointed" with Obama's record in office than "happy", and Americans often pay respect to the rhetoric of a limited government that fosters individual responsibility. If Romney can successfully present his vision on those two issues, without fumbling over his dismissal of 47% of Americans as moochers, he may buttress his claim to be the better choice as the next President of the United States among the undecided.