- Associated Press - Sunday, September 9, 2012

Finally, the fall season offers the matchup sure to attract the biggest audience of the campaign: President Obama going one-on-one with Republican Mitt Romney in three prime-time debates.

Typically the top political draw in the final sprint to Election Day, the debates assume outsized importance this year with the race a dead heat.

The candidates will have their sound bites and rhetoric down cold so any slip or inadvertent move — remember President George H.W. Bush’s exasperated glance at his watch or Democrat Al Gore’s repeated sighing? — could roil the campaign for days and linger in voters’ mind until Nov. 6.

No wonder Mr. Romney spent days this past week at the Vermont estate of former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey for debate practice sessions; Ohio Sen. Rob Portman played the role of Mr. Obama.

The president has had one practice session with Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democrats’ stand-in for Mr. Romney, and is certain to have several more before the first debate Oct. 3 in Denver.

The second debate, a town hall-style session, is Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y. The final debate, on foreign policy, is Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

GOP running mate Paul Ryan and Vice President Joseph R. Biden have one debate, Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.

Incumbents usually are at a disadvantage, defending a record against a challenger critiquing four years of work. Mr. Obama will be trying to avoid the fate of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who turned in flat debate performances in their first encounters with rivals. In the end, though, it didn’t hurt either one as they both won re-election.

“Debating is a muscle that doesn’t get used very often,” said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and the author of “Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV.” “Mitt Romney is better toned because he came off 20-plus primary debates. President Obama has not been on a debate stage in four years.”

In the first debate, on domestic policy, Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama will be armed with competing numbers and visions.

“Free enterprise has done more to lift people out of poverty, to help build a strong middle class, to help educate our kids, to make our lives better, than all of the government programs put together,” Mr. Romney told a meeting of the Newspaper Association of America.

Expect Mr. Obama to counter that more than 4.6 million jobs have been created since he took office after recession-driven job losses approaching 800,000 a month under Mr. Bush.

The second debate on Oct. 16 will cover domestic and foreign policy with questions from a group of undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization. This format that could elicit the unusual and the memorable.

It was at a 1992 town hall debate involving President George H.W. Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot in which the Republican was caught looking at this watch. His reaction came as an audience member was talking about how much the deep recession had personally affected him. Mr. Bush, who lost that election, later said that he was thinking: “Only 10 more minutes of this crap.”

The final debate Oct. 22 focuses on foreign policy.

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