SBS Online

By Rhiannon Elston

The first US election debate will give Mitt Romney a chance to break a change in polling patterns and convince voters he has what it takes to become president.

SBS reporter Rhiannon Elston asked Jonathan Bradley of the US Studies Centre who will likely benefit most from the first US election debate.

The first debate focuses on domestic policy. What are the key areas we’re likely to see Barack Obama and Mitt Romney go head-to-head on?

It sounds like there is going to be a lot of talk about the economy.

The moderator of the debate, Jim Lehrer, who is a journalist from PBS, recently announced what the topics will be, and three of the six slots allocated during the debate will be about the state of the economy. The remainder is going to be about health care, the role of government and governing.

Will Romney as challenger be on the attack?

Romney is going to say that Barack Obama has failed because [Obama] thinks the government needs to be too involved in the economy. Romney believes what needs to be done is [for the government] to take its hands off and let businesses creates jobs

Who will the candidates be looking to persuade?

What they’re going to hope is that they’re going to sway the five to six per cent of voters that haven’t made up their mind yet. They’ll be looking to make a break one way or the other. The problem is that that might not happen, because the people who tune in have already made up their minds. That’s a problem for Mitt Romney, because he is slightly behind in the polls. What he really needs is a circuit breaker.

How important are these debates over the course of the election? Can a stand-out performance re-set the playing field?

Pundits like to talk about the outsize influence debates can have an election. They often cite famous examples such as the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy contest, where TV viewers thought Kennedy was the victor, while radio listeners thought Nixon sounded better.

The truth is that the effect of the debates is usually more modest. You might see a polling shift of a few points around debate time, but not much more than that. [One] race where the debates might have made a difference is the 2000 one, where Al Gore seemed condescending and standoffish. In close contests like that one — and possibly this year’s — the debates can make a difference.

The reason the debates are more important for the challenger is that it’s one of the few moments in which he stands on equal footing with the president. Even while campaigning, the president has the trappings of the office to elevate his stature.

Having never been president, the challenger has to convince voters that he’s a suitable alternative. In the debates, both candidates are the same — two people on stage together, neither more important than the other, each trying to persuade the nation to vote him. It elevates the challenger enormously.

Traditionally the challenger has come out on top in first election debates. Who is your pick to win the night?

They’re both really strong debaters and they’re both going to be really practiced. If all goes to plan, they’ll fight each other to a draw. Mitt Romney is not good when he is caught off-guard. If Obama manages to catch him unaware that could really be a sticking point.

This article originally appeared on SBS Online.