And so it begins. This week sees the battle for the White House go up a notch, as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama fight it out face to face in the first of three presidential debates. All eyes will turn to the bustling Midwest city of Denver in Colorado, where the pair will trade blows and hope to score points over their domestic policy ideas.
The debate marks an upswing in the intensity of the presidential race as the candidates take each other on in person. Until now, both men have criticised each other’s mistakes and reputations from afar in statements, TV advertisements and interviews, without meeting head on.
But the debates give them the chance to, ideally, dismantle their opponent in person and win over the all important ‘undecided voters’ across the nation. A poor performance, meanwhile, could cost crucial votes in some of the most coveted swing states.
…take each other on in three debates…
Here’s how it works. Obama and Romney will take each other on in three debates, each based in a different city with a different policy area up for discussion. The first centers around domestic policy, the second is a question and answer session on domestic and foreign policy combined, while the third will focus on foreign policy alone.
The Denver debate will see moderator Jim Lehrer put Romney and Obama through their paces on an assortment of six topics – three economy-related topics, followed by health care, the role of government and governing. All of America’s most widely watched news channels will be showing the debate, with millions of Americans across the country expected to tune in at ‘Watch Parties’ across the nation.
Few would argue that Governor Romney goes into the debate with far more at stake than President Obama. The Republican campaign has been hit by a series of crippling setbacks over the past several months, while Romney himself struggles to compete with Obama’s charisma and likeability when speaking in public.
Most damaging of all was the emergence last month of a secretly-taped video, revealing comments Romney made at a private fund-raiser back in May. In it, Romney appeared to criticize and abandon the 47% of the American people he believed didn’t pay income tax. His comments were quickly seized upon by the Obama campaign and spread instantly across the global media:
“There are 47 percent who are with him [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what”
“…and so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives”
Although Romney swiftly tried to limit the damage from the comments, arguing that his campaign was ‘about the 100 percent in America’, the video served to bolster a view that the Republican candidate is an out-of-touch millionaire who fails to understand the problems faced by ordinary Americans. The Obama campaign then slammed his refusal to release tax returns before 2010, pointing out that the President and Vice-President Biden’s returns since 2000 were all freely available online.
Romney’s tax rate of 14.1% for 2011 compares unfavourably to Obama’s higher rate of 20.5% – and it was also claimed that Romney had overpaid tax in order to boost this year’s rate, by not taking advantage of all deductions he was entitled to make for charitable donations. Not to let the President completely off the hook, though, the White House did admit that Obama still pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.
President Obama, meanwhile, has remained largely untouched from any personal revelations which might damage his bid for re-election. In what was widely seen as a tit-for-tat move, a 1998 clip emerged of then-Senator Obama appearing to advocate ‘wealth redistribution in a recorded speech. Unsurprisingly, the rather ancient video failed to make any real dent in the Obama campaign and was branded a ‘desperate’ tactic by his staff.
If anything has hurt the president’s credentials in recent weeks, it has been the White House’s bungled reaction to the storming of the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The attack was part of a wave of violence across the Middle East, sparked by the publication of an offensive anti-Mohammed video on YouTube. During the attack, US ambassador Chris Stevens was killed alongside three other American citizens.
…the incident had been pre-meditated…
The Obama administration has come under heavy fire from critics for claiming in the days following the attack that it had been a spontaneous reaction to the video, rather than a terrorist attack.
They were then forced to change their story amidst howls of Republican derision, after it became increasingly apparent that the incident had been pre-meditated and, in all likelihood, orchestrated by extremists. Questions were also raised over whether the White House had prior knowledge of the planned attack and could have stepped in to prevent it – an issue which is highly likely to emerge in the second and third debate.
The Obama camp will also be all too aware that their President is woefully out of practice when it comes to debating. While Mitt Romney spent early 2012 battling off potential Republican candidates in a succession of debates, Obama will need to get back into the routine of fierce quick-fire debate after several years off.
Obama and Romney will both be keenly aware that an emphatic and dignified performance in the presidential debates could make a crucial difference to their respective campaigns. They’re likely to pick holes in each other’s plans and campaigns, whilst vigorously defending their own visions for America’s next four years.
For Romney, it’s an opportunity to convince voters that despite his wealth and unfortunately worded comments, he is a man of the people who understands the plight of ordinary cash-strapped Americans. For Obama, it’s a chance to get back to the heady days of 2008, when his disarming smile and skilful oratory won over vast swathes of the population.
Let the sparring commence.