Political experts say that presidential races have just three defining moments in which candidates can seize the attention of millions of voters and stir new interest in their campaigns.
The first two such moments, the selection of running mates and the party conventions, have passed.
The final phase begins Oct. 3, when President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney meet in the first of three debates in front of a national television audience.
With Obama enjoying a modest lead in the polls, the first debate is widely considered the most crucial, and could set the tone for the others. It is also seen as the president’s to lose. That puts much of the pressure on Romney, who has suffered a series of setbacks since the Republican National Convention in late August. Campaign strategists and political scientists say he is running out of time to catch Obama.
“This is his final opportunity to make his case when the country is watching,” said David Lanoue, a Columbus State University political scientist who has studied presidential debates.
Wednesday's event, to be held in Denver, will follow a traditional debate format, with the candidates answering a moderator's questions on domestic policy. A town hall meeting - in which voters ask the questions – will follow on Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y. The final debate, focusing on foreign policy, takes place Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.
Vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will square off in their own debate Oct. 11 in Danville, K.Y.
After spending much of the weekend preparing for his debate, Romney was set to squeeze in another session in Massachusetts and later in Denver on Monday, The Associated Press reported.
Obama has been prepping in Nevada, and told a high school crowd in Las Vegas that Romney was a "good debater" while he was "just OK."
While opinions vary on how much a debate actually influences a presidential race, the ingredients of this year’s campaign - tight polling, a dissatisfied voting public, an energized challenger - indicate that Romney could gain ground if he delivers a knockout performance, some analysts say.
To do that, they say, Romney needs not only to make himself appear as a worthy replacement to Obama, but he also needs to produce a “gotcha” moment that can be used as campaign fodder in the race’s final few weeks.
“A strong debate performance – or two, or three – could get Romney right back in the game,” Lenoue said.
Republicans point to 1980 as their model. That was when President Jimmy Carter, weakened by a sagging economy and failures abroad, met Republican challenger Ronald Reagan just a week before Election Day. Reagan did splendidly, delivering a few memorable lines, including this question, which would be repeated in myriad political campaigns for years to come: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan won in a landslide.
Obama, GOP strategists argue, has vulnerabilities that mirror Carter's.
“I think Gov. Romney needs to make the debate and the election about the president’s economic policies,” former Romney adviser Brett O’Donnell said. “And if he focuses on the economic policies, and shows the country that he has a better vision and a better prescription for leading the country out of its economic troubles, then he’ll win.”
Romney enjoys the advantage of having had a lot of practice. During the grueling Republican primary season, he participated in nearly two-dozen debates, although none of them were head-to-head. He generally performed well in all of them. One of his rare miscues came in a parry with Texas Gov. Rick Perry in which Romney, a wealthy former venture capitalist, casually offered to bet Perry $10,000.
Another advantage Romney has is that by simply standing on the same stage as the president he can elevate his public stature.
That is part of the reason why incumbent presidents tend to lose their first debates, experts say.
Everyone expects a sitting leader to win, and anything short of a flawless performance is considered a disappointment. Obama is no different: he is widely seen as a smooth orator and effective debater, but he hasn’t had a debate in four years, and is not used to being sharply questioned in public.
“I think the average voter is going into this thinking Obama will be the superior debater, and I don’t know that that’s true,” Lanoue said.
GOP strategist Ron Bonjean added: “The president is probably a little rusty, so it’s Romney’s job to get under his skin in a way that doesn’t look underhanded and drive him to a place where he wants to lecture everyone.”
Obama’s aides are aware of that weakness, and they’ve said they’re focusing on having him shorten his answers.
Bill Burton, a former Obama spokesman who now runs the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA Action, said the president needs to show that he understands what the middle class is going through. He also needs to take advantage of the fact that Romney is still trying to communicate what kind of president he would be.
“The American people are looking for who’s the stronger leader and who’s on their side and shares their values,” Burton said.
Steve Elmendorf, who has worked on three Democratic presidential campaigns, described Obama's goal more succinctly: Don't screw up.
“Anything from a tie to slight favor for him is good,” Elmendorf said.
While Republicans like to draw comparisons to 1980, many scholars see more similarities in the 2004 race, with Sen. John Kerry playing the challenger to beleaguered President George W. Bush. Kerry by most measures won their first debate, that performance is widely regarded as helping him gain in the polls. The race remained neck and neck until Election Day.
In the end, Kerry’s debate triumphs didn’t matter, though; he lost.
James Stimson, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, uses that race as an example in his argument for why debates are inconsequential.
Stimson has studied decades of polling data back to 1960, the year of the first televised presidential debate - in which Richard Nixon’s sweaty, shifting performance is widely seen as having sunk his chances against John F. Kennedy - and concluded that debates have no discernible impact on a race’s outcome.
Yes, debates are watched by tens of millions of people. And, yes, there have been some memorable debates that ended up fitting into the race’s final narrative. But the reality, Stimson said, is that by the time the debates happen, most voters have already made up their mind. Undecided voters tend not to tune in.
“The point is, we shouldn’t expect the debates to turn the election of 2012,” Stimson said. “There is no systematic evidence that debates nudge the polls.”
Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who has written a book about presidential debates, largely agrees.
“I think most years what happens is debates tend to reinforce perceptions that voters already have, rather than change their minds,” he said.
The debates of 1960 and 1980 are exceptions to that rule, Schroeder said. But he added that Romney still has a chance to make 2012 another of those rare cases.
“It’s been a pretty rough few weeks for Mitt Romney, in particular since the convention," Schroeder said. "The debate for him is a chance to push that in a different direction.”