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Obama, Romney campaigns continue spin as debate nears

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
AFP/Getty Images
This combination of file pictures shows US President Barack Obama (L) listening to the national anthem during the Joplin High School Commencement Ceremony May 21, 2012 at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Missouri, and US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R) singing the national anthem at a debate sponsored by CNN and the Republican Party of Arizona at the Mesa Arts Center February 22, 2012 in Mesa, Arizona. AFP PHOTO Mandel NGAN/AFP - Ethan Miller/Getty Images/AFP-/AFP/GettyImages

The spin began long before the candidates face each other on Wednesday in the first formal presidential debate.

As media personalities predicted who would likely win the matchup, campaign strategists for President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney put forth messages calculated to lower expectations of their candidates' ability to articulate domestic policy positions.

Obama said he is “just OK” at debating, countering the Romney campaign's assertion that the president is “the most gifted speaker in modern political history.”

The 90-minute debate, airing live at 9 p.m. on most TV networks, should offer vivid contrasts in style and substance as the two discuss the economy, health care, the role of government and governing. The first of the three debates should bring the biggest audience of any campaign event. More than 52 million viewers watched Obama's initial matchup with Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Yet many voters form opinions not by watching such matchups but by listening to commentary afterward, experts cautioned.

“Research shows that it is the media's assessment, in the spin rooms of the networks, of who won that actually changes people's impression of the debates,” said Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University. “The problem is, it matters what the press says in the spin room.”

Two polls this week showed the national race virtually tied. The Washington Post/ABC News poll and the Politico/George Washington University Battleground surveys gave Obama a 49 percent to 47 percent edge, within the margin of error. Romney showed slight gains among independent voters, coinciding with a marginal loss of enthusiasm among Democrats.

The key for Obama, said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College near Boston, is to demonstrate he is moving the country in the right direction and that voting for Romney would “push us back to the starting line.”

“The key for Romney is to convince voters that ... the president is not up to the task of righting the ship,” Ubertaccio said. In a 1980 debate, then-President Jimmy Carter failed to paint Republican opponent Ronald Reagan as too radical for the office, he said; and in 1992, President George H.W. Bush could not convince Americans that Democrat Bill Clinton was untrustworthy.

With the continued weak economy, Obama faces difficulties similar to those that Carter and Bush faced in those debates, Ubertaccio said, but Romney faces a personality deficit with voters who haven't warmed to him.

“The debate can ... help convince Americans that he can be trusted with the White House,” Ubertaccio said.

In preparation, the campaigns appeared to follow textbook strategies proven to work during the past few election cycles, said Chris Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio.

“First, lower expectations for your debate performance and raise it for your opponent,” he said. “Back in 2000, Al Gore got suckered into allowing the George W. Bush campaign to inflate the expectations for the senator and not for the governor; thus, the two candidates were judged differently.”

Pundits expected Gore to make headway with his performance, while Bush simply had to survive without messing up too much, Kelley said.

Many experts agree that Romney faces more pressure than Obama from national media members, who couched this debate as “do-or-die” for the Republican.

Making the debate a “game changer,” said Kelley, “is an impossible position for Romney to be in. ... Romney not only has to excel in the debates but also change the media narrative.”

That is “a big order of business,” he said, noting that Obama simply needs to “perform ably, not lose his cool, and counter-jab to every Romney jab.”

“This is not an even race, in any sense of the word,” Kelley said. “The media say they love a challenger for a good fight, but in the end, we know they prefer the incumbent. They give the incumbent more coverage, which invariably affects the race itself.”

Curt Nichols, a political science professor at Baylor University in Texas, said if Romney must debate media who cover the event, “it will often be necessary for Romney to reframe the terms of the debate as it occurs.”

“If he merely attempts to answer the questions asked, even with well-prepared responses, or just responds to the president's remarks, he probably will be fighting from enemy territory most of the night,” Nichols said.

To keep the debate an even playing field, Nichols suggested that Romney call out moderator Jim Lehrer, the host of PBS' “NewsHour,” if Romney thinks the debate shifts away from issues he considers important or the line of questioning becomes unfavorable.

Salena Zito is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at szito@tribweb.com.

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