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Watching the Presidential Debate: What Might Surprise You

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What are you guys doing on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET? I’ll be sitting in front of my TV, popcorn in one hand, iPhone for tweeting in the other, watching the first Presidential debate — because for political nerds like me, debates are like the Super Bowl. Finally, here is a chance to see Obama and Romney face off without the ads, without the spin from staffers and supporters.  I thought I would list a few things to know as you watch — Daniella’s guide to debate watching, if you will.

Both sides are lowering expectations, but in the case of President Obama, he’s right. Maybe I’m not supposed to say this out loud, but President Obama is not a great debater. Sorry, he just isn’t. I watched his eight million debates with then-Senator Clinton from 2008, and he pretty much lost every one. Sure, he got better, and John McCain was just a terrible debater. But in no way would I ever say Obama is a great debater. I think sometimes people confuse his ability to deliver amazing speeches with being great in one-on-ones, but these are two different skill sets.

Romney is in a tough position. On the one hand, he is lowering expectations, yet on the other, his campaign is acknowledging that he must have an amazing performance. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie proclaimed that Wednesday’s debate would be a game changer. Romney's people are making these contradictions because of the position they find themselves in; they didn’t receive a bump once they won the primaries, they didn’t get one for picking Paul Ryan, and they didn’t get a bump out of their convention, so this debate really is do or die for them. But look, it’s not all bad for Romney, because...

Challengers always benefit just by showing up. Mitt Romney will be standing on the stage with the President. That will automatically raise his stature, and that’s a positive thing for Romney.

And Romney is a good debater. He’s not the greatest, but he's had A LOT of practice. Since last year, he participated in about 23 debates and improved in each one. Toward the end of the primaries, most pundits agreed that his debate performances helped decimate his competition. That and the tens of millions of dollars he's spent.

President Obama hasn’t debated anyone in four years. He might be a little rusty.

The “media” is hoping Romney does well. This is just a hunch, but based on every other election in the modern era, I’m going to bet that the media would like to change the narrative from one of “President Obama is running away with this election” to “Romney just turned his campaign around and the race is tightening.” Which one of those stories is more interesting to cover?

One thing I hope happens is that debate moderator Jim Lehrer will ask both candidates about a topic that has not gotten much in-depth coverage this campaign season: poverty. My colleagues at Half in Ten started a campaign to get the debate moderators to Talk Poverty. In a campaign season filled with often silly commentary (who is more likeable? Who did better on late-night TV?), I would hope we could find five minutes to talk about an issue of great importance to the nation’s overall economic well-being.  

Here’s what I know for sure: The media will declare someone the immediate winner. They will then say that the next debate is make-or-break for whoever lost. And I know that I will clear my calendar and get my popcorn ready for the Vice Presidential debate.

Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Vice President for American Values and New Communities at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123

Filed Under: Obama Watch
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