Obama, Romney to face off in debate

Updated: 2012-10-03 10:09

By Stephen Collinson in Las Vegas, Nevada (China Daily)

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Barack Obama and his Republican foe Mitt Romney will clash on Wednesday in Denver, Colorado, in the first of a trio of debates, a test of nerve, temperament and presidential mettle before tens of millions of viewers.

The televised debates, which have the feel of a heavyweight title fight as a feisty challenger seeks to knock out or outpoint the current champion, are the last best hope for Romney to save a sagging campaign.

And they represent a potential minefield for President Obama as he seeks to cling on to a narrow lead in his quest to win a second term on Nov 6.

Obama, Romney to face off in debate

Sculpted clay-head molds of 2012 presidential candidates Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama face-off, foreshadowing this week's much-anticipated Presidential debate in a photo unveiled by Madame Tussauds Washington D.C., on Oct 1, 2012 and received by Reuters Oct 2, 2012. [Photo/Agencies]

The debates, a regular feature of presidential campaigns since a stubbly Richard Nixon lost to a youthful John F. Kennedy in 1960, allow a chance to measure up the men who would be president as they stand side by side.

Challengers like Romney must first convince voters they have the intellect and disposition needed of a president in a dangerous world, and showcase a personality that will not grate over four years in the White House.

Incumbents have an advantage because by definition, they are already viewed as "presidential" but as former leaders such as Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush found out, a slip can seriously damage a campaign.

Romney's biggest test may be to wrestle with a president who polls show is liked and trusted by a majority of voters, without seeming disrespectful or dismissive.

He endured a seemingly endless string of debates during the Republican primary campaign, but events with multiple candidates are a far cry from the concentrated pressure of a one-on-one face-off.

The more likeable Romney has tried to be throughout the campaign, the more unlikeable he has seemed to become, as he has struggled to show a personality that those close to him say is warm, caring and humorous.

The Republican has also left a trail of gaffes so Obama is likely to try to goad him in the hope of drawing out more unfortunate off-the-cuff comments.

"Romney has to go in there with a lot of preparation, with a very tight script, with a home base in terms of message, that is a place he's always going to return to," said veteran Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum.

"And then he has to memorize and stick to that script because he can't be trusted when he's spontaneous."

For Obama, the biggest challenge may be that he is out of practice over the four years since he out-debated his last Republican opponent, John McCain.

Presidents are habitually treated with deference and are not used to being cross-examined in public, so Obama must guard against coming across as entitled or irked by Romney's barbs.

On Spanish language television channel Telemundo last month, Obama appeared aggravated by blunt questions and flat-footed in some answers, suggesting that the debate practice he is getting at a Nevada resort is much needed.

While the president is famous for a flashing smile, he can be a cold fish as well, and some who meet him interpret his sometimes impersonal manner as arrogance and aloofness.

In a Democratic primary debate with Hillary Clinton, one comment to her - "you're likeable enough" - came across as prickly and condescending.

But the president's cool demeanor and more winning personality traits were on show when he met McCain, and his steely response to the unfolding financial crisis was key to him winning the presidency.

McCain by contrast, was irascible and displayed apparent disgust for Obama, appearing unwilling to look him in the eye.

Obama has made it known that he understands his professorial answers are sometimes a turnoff, and he has been honing more manageable soundbites.

Wednesday's debate is on the economy and domestic policy, but Jim Lehrer, a PBS television anchor moderating his 11th presidential showdown, has latitude within the rules to bring up other subjects.

So Obama could be asked about his administration's shifting narrative on the deadly assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept 11, which Romney says is proof that his foreign policy is falling apart.

Agence France-Presse