WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Wednesday marks the first time the two candidates will be able to challenge each other directly on the economic issues that have been the focus of the presidential campaign.
Viewers should be able to determine how each candidate fares by keeping an eye on the following five factors:
With less than six weeks to go until the election, Romney is under pressure to deliver a performance that shifts the momentum in his direction.
Obama, on the other hand, merely needs to avoid a catastrophic performance that could cause independent voters to reassess their support.
Both are experienced and competent debaters, but neither appears to enjoy the give and take that occurs at these events.
For each candidate, the challenge will be to rattle their opponent enough to prompt an off-script outburst.
“Obama just wants to avoid any big mistakes. Typically candidates are undone more by their own mistakes than by the successes of their opponents, the witty ripostes or devastating one liners of their opponents,” said George Washington University political science professor John Sides.
“For Romney, there’s more pressure and he really needs the debate to change the dynamic of the race.”
Television is a visual medium, and the body language of the candidates can have a bigger impact than their words.
Democratic Vice President Al Gore’s repeated sighs in a 2000 debate with George W. Bush turned voters off, while Bush drew negative attention in 2004 when he scowled while his Democratic opponent John Kerry spoke. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, looked at his watch in a 1992 debate, a move that many interpreted as impatient and aloof.
Obama and Romney want to avoid obvious missteps like these, but more subtle signals can also signal to viewers that candidates aren’t on the level.
Shoulder shrugs indicate uncertainty, a wrinkled upper lip signals disgust, and eye blinking, either too much or too little, can convey stress, said body-language expert Janine Driver, author of “You Can’t Lie to Me.”
On the other hand, a candidate conveys confidence when he turns his body to face his opponent.
“We’ll see them face each other when they think they’re going to knock it out of the park,” Driver said. “I call it ‘navel intelligence.’”
Alert viewers will be able to get a sense of how the debate will play in the news media by watching the first 30 minutes closely, although the impact of the debate probably won’t register in opinion polls until several days after the event.
Candidates need to establish their themes and launch their most important attacks early in the debate, while reporters and analysts are still forming their impressions about how the debate is going, according to former Gore adviser Ron Klain.
“While you can lose a debate at any time, you can only win it in the first 30 minutes,” Klain wrote in a memo for the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.
Both candidates have charged each other with playing fast and loose with the facts, and each will try to pin their opponent down on areas where they think they are vulnerable.
Obama frequently charges that Romney’s tax and budget plans “don’t add up.” Expect Obama to challenge Romney to explain which tax loopholes he would close in order to lower income tax rates without adding to budget deficits.
“His tax plan seems to be to just extend tax cuts for the highest income. He has 90 minutes to give specifics,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week.
Romney, meanwhile, has indicated that he plans to press Obama when the president strays from the truth. He will have to do so without directly calling the president a liar - a move that could backfire among independent voters.
“Am I going to spend my time correcting things that aren’t quite accurate? Or am I going to spend my time talking about the things I want to talk about?” Romney said earlier this month.
Romney has tried to make the election a referendum on Obama’s economic stewardship, but many voters still pin the blame for the sluggish economy and high unemployment on his predecessor in the White House, Republican George W. Bush.
“Until Governor Romney can show why his policies would be different from Bush’s policies, then we think it is highly unlikely that he can win,” Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst Brian Gardner wrote in a research note.
The conservative National Review says Romney should acknowledge that problems like the mounting national debt and the Byzantine tax code were in place long before Obama took office, but argue the current president has failed to fix them.
Taking on the Bush legacy will be tricky. The 43rd president remains an unpopular figure with the public at large, but an out-an-out repudiation could anger Romney’s core Republican supporters.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Doina Chiacu