(Photos: Obama by Marc Serota/Getty Images, Romney by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
by Catalina Camia (On Politics blog/USAToday.com)
President Obama and Mitt Romney finally get their chance tonight to take their campaign arguments directly to each other in the first of three televised debates.
The stakes are high: Up to 60 million people could be tuning in for answers that will help them decide whether to continue the nation's course under Obama or move in a different direction with Romney at the helm.
As the Republican challenger, Romney can be expected to come out swinging as he makes a case for his proposals to boost the economy and help the middle class. Obama, as the Democratic incumbent, is out to show that the recovery may be slow but steady -- and that he deserves another term to finish the job.
Our guide to the five things to watch in tonight's debate:
The numbers driving the fight over jobs: Lehrer plans to devote three of the six 15-minute debate segments to a discussion on the economy, so expect to hear some key numbers. Obama will be under pressure to explain why 23 million people are out of work or underemployed, the 8.1% unemployment rate, and what he'll do to reverse those trends. Romney can expect to be asked about his claim that he can create 12 million jobs in his first term and fill in the details of how he can get it done.
The great tax divide: No issue separates Obama and Romney more than the subject of taxes and who pays how much. It is a partisan gulf, with Romney believing that tax cuts will spur economic growth and Obama insisting that the wealthy pay their fair share. Obama may use this discussion to bring up Romney's remark about 47% of Americans who don't pay taxes and are dependent on the government. Romney has promised a 20% across-the-board tax cut, which Obama contends would benefit the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
Health care and Medicare: Obama can point to passage of the Affordable Care Act as a signature achievement of his presidency, something that expanded access to millions of people. Romney has portrayed "Obamacare" as an expansion of government that undermines Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly. Romney's challenge will be to attack Obama on health care without drawing attention to the Massachusetts health care law that he signed as governor, which Obama has said was a model for the national version. On Medicare, Romney wants to give future seniors a chance to buy the traditional, government-run insurance or receive a fixed amount to purchase coverage from private companies. Obama will argue that the GOP approach turns the program into a voucher system.
Style and performance: Substance matters, but so does the way Obama and Romney carry themselves as they joust over the finer points. Obama can be windy and sound like the constitutional law professor he once was. Romney, the adult in the room during the GOP primary debates, is said to be practicing his zingers. Appearing presidential and showing empathy will be critical.
Moving outside the box: Domestic issues are the billed focus tonight, but Lehrer has the freedom to bring up recent news developments. Romney has been hitting Obama hard on the administration's response to the deadly violence in Libya -- an issue that seems better suited to the Oct. 22 debate on foreign policy. Can Romney or Obama slip in an unexpected topic to throw his rival off his game?