What to Watch For in the First Presidential Debate

1349268497006.cached What to Watch For in the First Presidential Debate

 

At last, the pregame show is over. Brett O’Donnell, America’s premier debate coach, on the key pivot points in the first Obama-Romney throwdown.

Tonight, President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney will step onto the stage for the first of perhaps the most consequential series of presidential debates in American history. What is at stake is only matched by the premium Americans have grown to place on the art of political debate itself. Most Americans believe that debate is as much a part of the fabric of American politics as our first elections, but in reality general-election presidential debates are a relatively recent phenomenon, the first televised battles between Kennedy and Nixon also being the first debates between the nominees of the major parties. We have come to treat debates as part of the gauntlet that candidates must traverse and the one place to satisfy our desire for competition. And so we pay careful attention to the attacks and counterattacks, who can land the better body blows and if either can score a knockout punch through a clever line or zinger.

The Republican primary season only served to ratchet up those expectations. Michele Bachmann (full disclosure: I worked for her) knocked out Tim Pawlenty. Rick Perry knocked himself out. And the battles between Newt Gingrich and Romney were the stuff high-school debaters dream about. But lost in all of the metaphors of competition is a fight over the direction of the country. While millions will tune in to see which of their gladiators wins the duel, what should not be lost is what we learn about these two men and the direction each would take the country over the next four years.

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Both are competing for a small slice of undecided voters in 10 states. But both are also attempting to inspire their own bases to turn out in November. So both will have to walk the “tightrope