Accessibility links

High Stakes for First Presidential Debate

Stand-ins for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and President Barack Obama, shake hands during a rehearsal for a debate at the University of Denver, Oct. 2, 2012, in Denver.
The U.S. presidential election campaign switches into debate mode Wednesday with the first of three debates between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

The two candidates have been taking part in mock debates and trying to lower expectations for their first encounter in Denver, Colorado.

President Obama addressed supporters in Nevada. “Governor Romney, he is a good debater," he said. "I am just okay.”

Romney held one last rally before the debate in Colorado. “It is not so much winning and losing or even the people themselves, the president and myself," said Romney. "It is about something bigger than that.”

Coming into the debates, political analysts say there is more pressure on Romney to do something to alter the current political landscape. Polls show the president with a narrow lead nationally and in several key states where both campaigns are battling for electoral votes that will likely decide the race.

The 2012 Presidential Debate Schedule

  • October 3: Moderator asks questions on domestic policy
  • October 16: Town hall meeting in which undecided voters ask questions on domestic, foreign issues
  • October 22: Moderator asks questions on foreign policy
Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown expects the president to be cautious and to protect his lead.

“Clearly the president is ahead and so what he needs out of these debates is nothing," said Brown. "He just needs nothing to happen that would change the status quo.”

Brown says Romney may see the debates as his final opportunity to shake up the race.

“Romney needs something to change," he said. "A tie goes to Mr. Obama in these debates. So Romney needs to convince voters who are not for him to be for him. He needs to change votes because the three debates are his best opportunity over the next five weeks to change the status quo.”

But the polls suggest many voters have already decided on a candidate for November and analysts say the debates do not always have a major impact on the campaign.

“I think it is very risky," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. "Debates have not been turning points for elections. John Kerry, who lost to George W. Bush in 2004, won every one of the presidential debates, but still lost the election.”

Historically, the debates have produced some pivotal moments. In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan used his only debate with President Jimmy Carter to pose a key question to voters.

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Debate mistakes can also take a toll. President Gerald Ford’s assertion in 1976 that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet influence may have contributed to his defeat at the hands of Democrat Jimmy Carter.

“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration,” had said Ford.

Non-verbal moments can also provide lasting memories for voters, such as Vice President Al Gore sighing in apparent frustration in 2000 or President George H.W. Bush looking at his watch during a 1992 debate.

In addition to three presidential debates this year, there will also be one vice presidential debate between the incumbent, Joe Biden, and Republican candidate Paul Ryan.
  • 16x9 Image

    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

Your opinion

Show comments