Presidential debate ritual is great equalizer for incumbent, challenger

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“Debates are the only opportunity voters have to see these candidate mano y mano,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist. “You don’t ever see them together other than in the debates. It is one of the only chances for voters to see how their candidate stacks up against the incumbent. In that respect, Mitt Romney has an invaluable opportunity.”

Mr. Romney could use the equalizer, because the campaign trail is anything but equal.

All the pomp of the presidency follows Mr. Obama’s trips aboard Air Force One, while Mr. Romney’s plane — dubbed “Air Romney” by some reporters — has broken down on the tarmac at a Virginia airport.

“The MD-83 is an old, old technology, while Air Force One has all the bells and whistles in it the way that any up-to-date airplane would,” said Capt. Richard “Rick” Dake, a consultant for Aero Consulting Experts, who has flown planes for 40 years. “Air Force One would be like the Park Avenue of airplanes and Romney is on the Motel 6.”

Or take the trappings of major events.

Last month, after the assault on the U.S. compound in Libya that left four Americans dead, Mr. Obama strode out to the Rose Garden to stand with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side and deliver a statement.

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, tossed together a last-minute press conference at his Jacksonville, Fla., campaign headquarters, which is located in strip mall next to a shop — called Blazin’ Reptiles — that bills itself as the city’s “cleanest and finest exotic pet store.”

Mr. Sabato said that day underscores the built-in advantages an incumbent has.

“It is amazing that even when the economy is weak, incumbency can carry a president along. We are seeing it this fall,” he said. “If a president can remain likable, some voters will forgive him a lot.”

The jury, though, is still out on whether the debates will significantly move the needle for either of the candidates.

Some say the debates are less important than in the past because voters are so familiar with the candidates, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and length of the presidential campaign, which for Mr. Romney started 18 months ago when he announced at a farm in New Hampshire that he would make a second run for the presidency.

“Debates are less important this year than in the past for two reasons,” said H.W. Brands, a historian. “They are old hat and therefore will attract fewer viewers than in the past, [and] both candidates are well known: Obama by virtue of being president, Romney from the two dozen Republican debates.

“Unless one or the other commits a great gaffe, these debates are unlikely to change many minds,” Mr. Brands said.

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