1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate (Chicago Tribune)
Tonight's Presidential debate and the two that follow will be critical for President Obama and Governor Romney. Both candidates have an extraordinary opportunity to reach out to undecided and independent voters, especially those in the swing states.
What each one does with that opportunity will be the subject of countless other debates in the media, offices, bars and cafes across the country.
Here are five things to keep in mind as you watch or listen to the debates.
1. Resist the urge to declare a clear-cut winner. Each candidate can do well.
2. Not all gaffes are created equal. A minor stumble on the amount of money spent on public transportation should not equate to a mistake on a major foreign policy issue.
3. Look for how well the candidates express their personality. It's not enough to come across as authoritative. People also have to see the human side of the candidate.
4. Listen for the memorable sound bite, the one the media play over and over again in the post debate analysis. People still remember Ronald Reagan's "There you go again" and Walter Mondale's "Where's the Beef?"
5. Listen for how well the candidates make the "ask." What's their bottom line appeal to voters? Do they make it clear?
Remember, if you've already made up your mind about which candidate you'll be voting for, you'll likely view the debate much differently than those who are still undecided. The candidates have to speak directly to them.
Modern day Presidential debates aren't really formal debates. They're more like side by side press conferences. As such, the candidates have the opportunity to present their own agenda while also taking aim at the other guy.
Look for a good bit of give and take. With Romney trailing in many of the polls, he will be on the offensive. Obama has to remember he's the President. Everything he says carries an extra bit of authority.
Because this is the first debate and because it's focused so heavily on the economy, this will likely be the most influential of the three Presidential debates. In fact, with our short attention spans these days, the first half hour could well determine the outcome of the entire campaign.
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