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FILE - In these Sept 27, 2012, file photos Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, arrives to campaign in Springfield, Va., and President Barack Obama arrives back at the White House after campaigning in Virginia Beach, Va. Fierce and determined competitors, Obama and Romney each have a specific mission for the string of three debates that starts Wednesday night, Oct. 3, 2012. Obama, no longer the fresh face of 2008, must convince skeptical Americans that he can do in a second term what he couldn't in his first: restore the U.S. economy to full health. Romney, anxious to keep the race from slipping away, needs to instill confidence that he is a credible and trusted alternative to the president, with a better plan for strengthening the fragile economy.

, Associated Press - Ap

More than 60 million likely to see first presidential debate

  • Article by: DAVID LIGHTMAN and ANITA KUMAR
  • McClatchy News Service
  • October 3, 2012 - 5:53 AM

DENVER - President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will offer voters two starkly different prescriptions for fixing the ailing economy as they duel Wednesday in their first and perhaps most critical debate.

More than 60 million people are expected to watch when the nationally televised, 90-minute debate kicks off at 8 p.m. CDT, far more than watched the two major party national conventions and dwarfing the number who watched Romney in Republican primary debates.

Underscoring the significance, the men will arrive at the University of Denver debate site after days of closed-door rehearsals, Obama in Nevada and Romney in Colorado. The stakes are particularly high for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has stayed close to Obama in most polls but continues to trail, having struggled to find momentum.

"It's one of the few possible game changers left for him, and the only one he has a certain amount of control over," said Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of advertising at Boston University.

Most polls show Obama remains vulnerable -- his Gallup job approval rating Sept. 28-30 was 47 percent, about where it's been for some time, and a Quinnipiac Polling Institute survey released Tuesday, taken Sept. 25-30, put him ahead of Romney by just 49 to 45 percent.

Obama also faces high expectations. Regardless of political spin from the campaigns, Americans by a 2-to-1 margin expect Obama to win the debate, according to polls.

Romney has not engaged in a one-on-one political debate since he ran for governor of Massachusetts 10 years ago, while Obama debated Republican John McCain three times in 2008 and is a familiar presence on American television.

Opportunity for Romney

The numbers suggest an opportunity for Romney, who will try to tell voters that Obama should be held responsible for a stubbornly sluggish economy. Romney plans to stress that Obama's remedies too often involve "going forward with a stagnant, government-centered economy," said senior adviser Ed Gillespie.

Obama is trying to lower expectations. "The president is familiar with his own loquaciousness and his tendency to give long, substantive answers," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki, calling it a challenge when there's a timer running. "That's certainly something he and all of us are cognizant of."

"Governor Romney, he's a good debater. I'm just OK," Obama said with a grin to a Nevada audience earlier this week. "But what I'm most concerned about is having a serious discussion about what we need to do to keep the country growing and restore security for hardworking Americans. That's what people are going to be listening for."

Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor who has written a history of presidential debates, "Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV," said Obama tended to be "very agreeable" with McCain in 2008.

"That was part of his strategy, to appear willing to extend the olive branch, but I don't think that's going to fly this time," Schroeder said.

Barring a major gaffe or surprise, few analysts expect the debate to radically change the race right away.

Quinnipiac found that 86 percent thought it would make no difference in how they voted.

But what a debate can do is plant images and ideas with voters that they will seek to confirm or dismiss over the campaign's final month.

Economic disagreements

The key economic flash points Wednesday are expected to involve taxes, the federal debt and jobs.

Romney is running ads tying Obama to the government's $16 trillion debt, notably in a recent spot showing a baby and talking about the debt she was inheriting.

Obama has said that Romney's plans would mean even more debt.

Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, was responsible for a big chunk of the debt boom. When he took office in 2001, the figure was $5.7 trillion. Because of tax cuts, a new Medicare drug program, war spending and other factors, the debt was $10.6 trillion when he left office eight years later.

Both Obama and Romney would add trillions more to the debt over the coming decade.

On jobs, Romney is expected to offer frequent reminders that the jobless rate went over 8 percent during Obama's first full month in office in February 2009 and has never dropped below that level. That's the longest stretch over 8 percent since such records started 64 years ago.

The nation lost about 7.9 million jobs during the December 2007-June 2009 recession -- most of which occurred during the Bush administration -- but the pace of hiring has since lagged behind usual post-recession standards.

Romney maintains his incentives for business would help create 12 million jobs over four years. Obama is likely to tout his American Jobs Act, which would provide government spending on public works and incentives for business to help create jobs.

Both are expected to cite changes in the tax system as key strategies for job creation.

Romney may find fodder as well in a remark made Tuesday by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden, speaking in Charlotte, N.C., said that Romney would raise taxes on the middle class. "How they can justify ... raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years?" he asked.

"Agree with joebiden, the middle class has been buried the last 4 years, which is why we need a change in November," Romney said on Twitter.

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