Obama, Romney Get Ready to Rumble in Denver

Politicos are looking for blood, but candidates hope for safe waters.

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DENVER­­—The debate stage is set for a knock down, drag-out fight between the two men vying for the White House Wednesday night, and the stakes for each are daunting.

According to recent polling President Barack Obama comes into the first debate here at the University of Denver as the heavy favorite, which means if he fails to score a decisive victory the media and voters will hold it against him.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has no easy path forward, either, though he comes in as the underdog. Thanks to a series of national, and more importantly, swing state polls showing him close to but trailing the president, both the media and fellow conservative pundits have declared the first debate a make-or-break moment for Romney.

In modern politics, debates are now inherently overhyped as well as overly cautious. The majority of the millions of viewers tuning in have largely already made up their mind about who they support and just hope to see their favored candidate draw blood from his opponent.

On the flip side, the candidates are often so paranoid of committing a gaffe in an unscripted moment they rehearse not only opening and closing statements, talking points and policy details, but also canned jokes or so-called "zingers." And they often are rewarded for their efforts, as these carefully crafted moments are generally the most talked about tidbits on cable news shows or around the office water cooler.

Another incentive for cautious approaches by the candidates is the small chance they might win over an undecided voter, who at this point in the election are likely less politically active and may be tuning into the race for the first time.

Obama and Romney, both largely poised, scripted debaters in their own right, will likely follow this model—to the dismay of the media and partisan faithful. Reports have already cited extensive periods of debate prep on both sides, with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry taking on the role of Romney as Obama's sparring partner and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman playing Obama for Romney.

Obama will work to continue the job started at the Democratic National Convention of convincing voters that the economic hand he was dealt takes more than just one term to turn into a winning one. He will strive to highlight points of success, likely including the passage of his controversial comprehensive healthcare law, the repeal of the ban on gays openly serving in the military, and the Lily Ledbetter Act that makes it easier for women to sue for workplace pay discrimination.

For Romney, the task will be to acknowledge the president's likeability but show voters where Obama has failed and where he will succeed. More than just pointing the finger at the president, Romney will seek to outline his economic plan in a way that appeals to middle- and working-class voters, with whom the wealthy businessman has had trouble connecting. By enumerating his ideas for lowering taxes and expanding business growth, Romney's goal is to lay out a stark choice for voters.

With two more debates to follow—not to mention a vice presidential match-up—the showdown in Denver will likely amount to feeling out their opponent and promoting large portions of their stump speeches, experts say.

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But that doesn't mean there may not be revealing moments of candor, forced by seasoned debate moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS NewsHour—or from the candidates themselves. Both men have in the past tended to get thin-skinned and almost snippy when they feel opponents have misrepresented their positions or attacked in self-determined "out-of-bounds" areas.

For Obama, it was 2008 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton who prompted him to retort, "You're likeable enough."

Through two Republican presidential primary campaigns, Romney has perhaps endured more high level debates than any other candidate, but that doesn't make him immune to being similarly annoyed. Earlier this year, it was Texas Gov. Rick Perry who led to Romney's waging a $10,000 bet—which led to an awkward moment when Perry laughed it off.