Instant Guide

The first presidential debate: A viewer's guide

Wednesday night's showdown between President Obama and Mitt Romney may be the biggest night of the campaign. A rundown of what you need to know

In the political world, Wednesday night's first-ever debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney is this year's Main Event. With the presidential race currently leaning in Obama's direction, this face-off is seen as the best chance for Romney to shake up his campaign, with the election only five weeks away and voters already starting to cast their ballots. Most of the expected tens of millions of viewers, though, are probably just looking for good TV, interesting politicking, and a healthy dash of policy thrown in. Here, a guide to watching the debate:

When is the debate, and how can I watch it?
The debate, held at Colorado's University of Denver, starts at 9 pm (ET) and lasts for 90 minutes. All the major network and cable news channels — NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, PBS, CNN, CNBC, Fox News, MSNBC, C-SPAN, and Univision — are broadcasting the event, and there are plenty of ways to watch online, including at special websites created by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) in partnership with AOL, YouTube, and Yahoo.

Who's the moderator?
Jim Lehrer, the executive editor and former host of PBS NewsHour. This will be Lehrer's 12th turn in the moderator's chair at a presidential debate, a modern record. Widely praised for his integrity, skill, and impartiality, Lehrer swore that the 2008 debates would be his last, but when the CPD called, he agreed to un-retire. "People who are invited to moderate these events — you have to do it," he told Politico. "It's almost like getting a draft notice." The CPD insisted on Lehrer because it needed someone with his experience and skill to negotiate a new debate format it is debuting Wednesday night.

What's this new format?
The 90-minute debate is divided into six 15-minute sections, each one focused on a different topic. Each candidate will have two minutes to respond to the initial question, then the next 11 minutes will be in the hands of the moderator — Lehrer can use the time to "dig deeper, prompt direct engagement, and pin down someone who tries to slip off the hard questions," says Dan Balz at The Washington Post. "That requires a lot of skill under pressure," adds CPD director Janet Brown. "It requires an understanding of how live television works, and it requires an ability to focus on the candidates without inserting oneself into the conversation."

Is there a general theme?
Broadly speaking, the debate is all about domestic policy. Lehrer, in an unusual move, has already released the general topic of each of the segments: The economy, the economy, the economy, health care, the role of government, and governing. More specifically, says The Wall Street Journal, Obama and Romney will probably be asked about their plans to create jobs and foster economic growth, tackle the federal deficit, deal with Medicare and Social Security, change our tax system, and handle immigration issues.

Who's favored to win?
Pre-debate polls indicate that, by a healthy margin, most Americans expect Obama to win. Both sides have gone to somewhat absurd lengths to build up the other candidate's debating prowess, so these polls make Romney "the clear winner of the expectations game," says Dan Amira at New York. But Romney also has another hurdle to clear: "How well he performs versus how well he needs to perform in the context of the race's overall dynamics." So while the challenger will probably be crowned the winner on Wednesday night, "the most likely post-debate narrative may be that Romney did better than expected, but not well enough to existentially undermine Obama's lead."

Who will be post-debate spinning for each side?
In effect, just about everyone with a TV camera, microphone, and/or Twitter and YouTube account will be picking the winner and most memorable "moments" — and these spin doctors, official or not, will probably be more important than the debaters themselves, says John Sides at The Monkey Cage. Academic studies have shown that watching even 20 minutes of post-debate analysis on TV changes a viewer's perception of who won. So "if this year's debates do move the polls, any credit (or blame) may belong to the media," not Obama or Romney.

Sources: The Atlantic, Monkey Cage, New York, The New York TimesPlain Blog About Politics, Politico, U.S. News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, You Decide Politics


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