Students of presidential politics say it is rare for debates to make or break campaigns for the White House. That theory gets put to the test tonight, when the nominees face off in Denver.
The debates carry unusual significance this year. Polls indicate that President Obama has an edge over his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. That confounds conventional wisdom, which holds that an incumbent struggles in a sour economy.
The debate will consist of six 15-minute segments — three devoted to the economy and one each on health care, the role of government, and governing. We hope the candidates will take unscripted departures from familiar talking points and provide specificity in their answers.
It’s right that the first debate should focus on the economy, the most important issue of the campaign. Here are some questions we’d like to hear asked — and answered — tonight:
For Mr. Obama, Is this anemic economic recovery all there is? What can you do to revive the nation’s fortunes beyond urging Americans to be patient?
For Mr. Romney: What would you have done differently in the past four years? And how much worse would unemployment be today if there had been no federal stimulus money to keep people on the job or if the U.S. auto industry had gone bankrupt, as you said should have happened?
Mr. Obama: Are you serious about cutting the deficit when doing so would require cutting social programs that Democrats like? Mr. Romney: How can you argue the deficit will go away when experts agree it will take spending cuts and higher taxes to do the job, and your party is sworn to reject the latter?
For both nominees: Which is more important at this moment, adding jobs or reducing red ink? Could cutting the deficit too quickly could stop recovery in its tracks, as some economists warn?
President Obama: Where will the extra doctors come from to handle the millions of new patients that will come into the system under your national health-care reform law?
Mr. Romney: How will you replace Obamacare after your promised repeal? Why is it wrong to expect personal responsibility — the essence of the individual mandate to buy health insurance?
Many other questions suggest themselves in this and subsequent debates. This election may turn on the answers.