By Travis Taylor
For President Barack Obama, it is a situation that he has been in before. For GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, it is the first time that he has shared a national stage with his Democratic counterpart.
For both the incumbent and the challenger, it is a night that could define the next five weeks in the 2012 race for the White House.
“There is a tremendous amount of preparation on both sides because they understand that we are on the last lap of things,” Dr. Martin Medhurst, distinguished professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor, said.
Both Obama and Romney have been preparing extensively for this Wednesday’s televised debate at the University of Denver. Obama is spending the three days leading up to the debate in a desert resort in Nevada, which is also a key battleground state, while Romney has devoted eight days out of the last month solely to prepare for his matchups with the president.
As Obama’s lead over Romney in the polls grows, so does the importance Wednesday’s debate, Medhurst said..
“When you are running from behind, you have to do something to reignite your candidacy,” Medhurst said.
Medhurst added that the first presidential debate usually draws the largest audience, and that both candidates are looking to sway independent, undecided voters.
“[Romney] is also going to present his program in a way that resonates with the great middle of the electorate,” Medhurst said.
Dr. David Bridge, assistant professor of political science at Baylor, also said that reaching the so-called “swing voters,” or “someone who doesn’t identify strongly with the Republicans or the Democrats,” are the key to winning the election.
“In a close race like this one, debates can be important,” Bridge said.
The first debate’s topic, domestic policy, will resonate with Americans who are concerned about jobs and the economy.
“You can anticipate that there will be a lot of questions about the economy,” Bridge said.
For Obama, the goal for the debate is to keep his cool while keeping his answer to short, clear statements, said the president’s aides. Aides also said that Obama wasn’t going to include a list of “zingers” in his preparation for the debate, and that he is preparing shorter rebuttals to use against Romney.
“These aren’t real debates; they are timed press conferences really,” Medhurst said. “Answers that go on or are too complex or require the audience to remember things are not good TV.”
Aides to Obama also said he needs to show that he can calmly and collectively respond to Romney’s criticisms.
For Romney, the pressure is on to reverse a widening gap in the national polls, Medhurst said. Romney has been criticized by his opponent for his lack of policy details in the past, and, unlike Obama, he does not have the experience of participating in presidential debates four years ago.
Still, Obama’s aides say that Romney’s preparation levels have been tremendous.
“Mitt Romney…has been preparing earlier and with more focus than any presidential candidate in modern history,” Jennifer Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman for Obama told the Associated Press. “Not John F. Kennedy, not President Bill Clinton, not President George Bush, not Ronald Reagan has prepared as much as he has.”
Also important is the ability of both Obama and Romney to separate themselves as presidential candidates, Medhurst said.
“I do believe that Romney has to draw a stark contrast and do it in a way that draws people to his side,” Medhurst said.
Presidential debates are an important step in gathering momentum that can carry a candidate through Election Day, Medhurst added.
Wednesday’s debate is the first of three debates between Obama and Romney. The debate begins at 8 p.m. and will be shown live on C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC, as well as all cable news channels. The debate can also be streamed live online at www.2012 presidentialelectionnews.com. Jim Lehrer, host of the PBS show NewsHour, will be the moderator for the debate.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.