In what gives every sign of being a close, bitter, expensive and mostly negative contest, the way these men interact onstage could make a major difference. —James Fallows, The Atlantic
With the first presidential debate set for next Wednesday, Oct. 3, President Barack Obama's team used a Sunday interview to suggest that Republican challenger Mitt Romney has the advantage, while Romney told reporters the debates mean the president will no longer be able to "fool people."
Three presidential debates are scheduled for Obama and Romney, with the first debate set to focus on domestic policy. The second debate will be on Oct. 16 and will follow a town meeting format, where citizens will be able to ask candidates questions on foreign and domestic policy. The third and final debate, set for Oct. 22, will focus on foreign policy.
In a break with tradition, the Commission on Presidential Debates released the topics for the first debate, warning that they were subject to change due to news developments. The six topics include three 15-minute sections on the economy, as well as sections on health care, the role of government and governing.
"We had been thinking about this for a while," CPD executive director Jan Brown said on releasing the topics ahead of time. "CPD's intention is to have the candidates come prepared for a more in-depth conversation."
On Sunday, former White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Romney would have an edge over Pres. Obama going into the debates thanks to the Republican's primary season contest.
"Mitt Romney, I think, has an advantage because he's been through 20 of these debates in the primaries over the last year. He even bragged that he was declared the winner in 16 of those debates," Gibbs told Chris Wallace. "So, I think, in that sense, having been through this much more recently than President Obama, I think he starts with an advantage."
Gibbs also said he thinks Americans will get a real sense of what Obama is talking about when discussing middle class security, and they'll be able to contrast the president's words with Romney's regarding their visions for America.
Romney, speaking to reporters Sunday, said the president is trying to fool voters, and that the debates will help.
"The president will not be able to continue to mischaracterize my pathway, and so I'll continue to describe mine, he will describe his, and people will make a choice," Romney said. "That's the great thing about democracy. I'm not going to try to fool people into thinking he believes things he doesn't. He's trying to fool people into thinking that I think things that I don't. And that ends at the debates."
In an analysis piece, ABC's Rick Klein wrote that Romney faces pressures to change the trajectory of the presidential race, and that the debates will afford him that opportunity. Unlike the primary debates, however, he won't have the luxury of sitting back and watching his opponents fire at each other.
Obama will also face his own vulnerabilities during the debates, Klein said.
"The president's '60 Minutes' interview can provide some clues around areas of vulnerability," Klein wrote. "Obama looked tired, and sometimes he looked like he wanted to be someplace else. He also fell into the habit of answering questions he'd heard before with cliches — thus a 'rocky path' and 'bumps in the road' are what to expect in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, an aftermath that's already turned violent and tragically deadly."
"Obama's prickly & snippy responses to modestly challenging Qs shd (sic) tell Romney to land a flurry of close-in punches early during debates. KEY," radio host Laura Ingraham tweeted after his "60 Minutes" interview.
According to James Fallows of The Atlantic, Romney's debate weaknesses include a "thin factual knowledge on many policy issues, a preference to talk in generalities — and a palpable awkwardness when caught unprepared and forced to improvise."
Romney is a strong debater when he's not surprised, Fallows wrote, and because challengers usually profit from the first debate, Obama will need to use the platform to sell the idea that Romney would be bad for the country, unready for the job or worse overall.
"If economic trends are bad enough — or, improbably, good enough — to turn the election into a runaway, we might look back and say that the debates didn't matter," Fallows wrote. "But in what gives every sign of being a close, bitter, expensive and mostly negative contest, the way these men interact onstage could make a major difference."
Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan will meet for a vice presidential debate on Oct. 11, focusing on foreign and domestic policy and moderated by ABC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Martha Raddatz.