The stakes at risk in the first debate

Writing in Tuesday???s Financial Times, veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg recalled how Bill Clinton wrapped up the election in his final debate with then-President George H.W. Bush in 1992. The Republican incumbent famously glanced at his watch, while challenger Clinton got up from his seat and walked over to a woman to give a highly personalized answer to her question about the impact of the recession.

In striking contrast, Greenberg wrote, Al Gore in 2000 went from a five-percentage point lead in most polls to being down five percentage points after his debates with George W. Bush were over. In contrast, concludes the pollster, John Kerry won all of his televised encounters with President Bush in 2004, but nonetheless lost the election.

As for Wednesday???s debate, what Mitt Romney says and does and how he presents himself will indeed make a difference in the election. With respect to Stan Greenberg, the country was firmly engaged in the war on terror and the economy was going well when Bush lost the debates and nonetheless beat Kerry.

2012, in striking contrast, is light years removed from 2004.

With the economy uncertain and the world situation unpredictable in at least a half-dozen places — the tumultuous election in Georgia and what it means to Putin???s Russia is the latest example — the performances of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in Denver are indeed going to have an impact on the election. In fact, the significance of the debates could rival that of those between Bush and Gore in 2000 or even the celebrated first-ever debate of 1960, in which John Kennedy catapulted ahead of Richard Nixon in the polls and never quite lost that lead.

Should Romney present himself as a leader with a clear vision — from jump-starting the private sector to reducing tax rates to reforming the welfare state to make it more streamlined — he stands an excellent chance of turning around polls that show him, at most, 4 to 6 percentage points behind President Obama nationwide.

Put another way, the Republican nominee has to tell Americans the direction in which he wants to take them and, in the process, make them like him. Since his acceptance speech in Tampa in August, Romney has struggled unsuccessfully to do both.

But should President Obama appear the solid commander-in-chief who does not dwell on problems he had in the past four years but speaks of where America can now go after the battles on health care and spending in Washington, he can cement his lead. Moreover, he can probably strengthen his leads in such key states as Ohio, Virginia, and Florida and possibly help the rest of the Democratic ticket.

To do so, it is critical that Obama not focus on successes and failures of his first term. Quite possibly, he could adapt the famous strategy by which New York City Mayor Robert Wagner won an improbable third term in 1961: ???Wagner,??? as one strategist put it, ???knew how to run against himself.???

One thing is certain: one way or another, the polls are very likely to move after the candidates leave the stage in Denver and candidates for Congress and other offices are left wondering: ???Is it OK for me to appear on stage with my guy for president????

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