Presidential debate ritual is great equalizer for incumbent, challenger

Call it the built-in gravitas gap: President Obama flies the country in a grand 747, cruises in plush limousines adorned with American flags, and speaks from the White House Rose Garden, while his campaign opponent, Mitt Romney, flies in a smaller MD-83 passenger jet, rides in nondescript SUVs and makes speeches at factories and strip malls.

But on Wednesday that gap is closed, even if just for 90 minutes, when voters see the two men stand on the same stage together and go head-to-head in the first presidential debate of the campaign.

“Debates are an equalizer for challengers because there are no office trappings on stage,” said Darrell M. West, director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “It is two people answering questions, and voters can reach their own impressions without outside filtering.”

That can’t come soon enough for the Republican presidential nominee, who after running neck-and-neck with Mr. Obama in the polls has now fallen behind.

Mr. Obama also has a lead in nearly every battleground state, according to Real Clear Politics’ averages of polls, including those taken in Colorado, which plays host to Wednesday’s debate at the University of Denver.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that he has “never known a challenger that didn’t long for debates.”

“It is the only chance to go toe to toe with the incumbent and look just as presidential as he can,” Mr. Sabato said.

That helped Sen. John F. Kerry close a gravitas gap in 2004 with incumbent President George W. Bush, who was running as a wartime leader with troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr. Kerry’s camp said after the first debate that being on stage with the president helped elevate the Democratic candidate because Mr. Kerry was able to handle the same questions and engage in a back-and-forth with the president.

With that experience, Mr. Kerry has been helping Mr. Obama prepare for the debates, playing the role of Mr. Romney in practice.

Mr. Romney has tapped Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a former trade ambassador and White House budget chief under Mr. Bush, to play the role of Mr. Obama.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have hunkered down over the past couple of days to prepare — Mr. Obama in Henderson, Nev., and Mr. Romney already in Denver — but each candidate has managed to squeeze in time away from their practice sessions.

Mr. Obama, whose camp has said he hasn’t had as much time to prepare as he would have liked, took a tour of the Hoover Dam and marveled at his guide’s revelation that most of the electricity produced goes to power Southern California.

For his part Mr. Romney snagged a burrito bowl with Mr. Portman at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in the outskirts of Denver, where the company is headquartered.

On Wednesday, both candidates will do private walkthroughs of the debate site beforehand, then likely lay low until the evening affair — 90 minutes in front of the same audience, facing the same television cameras and fielding questions from the same moderator — in this case PBS newsman Jim Lehrer.

“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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