Going into tonight's presidential debate between President Barack Obama and his challenger, former Gov. Mitt Romney, the candidates, their campaigns and the pundits have been trying hard to win the expectations game.

In a war of words, communications professionals have learned that tempering expectations and characterizing what an opponent might say (even before it is said) can frame what is written about a debate afterwards. With regard to their performance tonight, both sides are attempting to under-promise and over-deliver.

Since others are attempting to shape expectations, we thought it appropriate to share what we expect from tonight's debate on domestic policy.

We expect both candidates to acknowledge American families are hurting. For over 43 months the unemployment rate — which tracks those actively seeking employment — has been above 8 percent. Much of the recent decline in that rate has come not through net new employment (which is hardly keeping up with population growth) but when discouraged workers have stopped looking for work. The brutal employment story is that participation in the labor force, for Americans 25 to 55, is at its lowest point in 30 years. The well-being and dignity of millions of families hangs in the balance.

We expect both candidates to acknowledge that the American economy is slowing. Despite unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus, the annual rate of economic growth has slowed to 1.6 percent in the first half of 2012.

We expect both candidates to acknowledge that the government of the United States is struggling. The historic mismatch between revenues and expenditures — more than $1 trillion this year alone — has damaged the nation's credit rating and ballooned the federal debt to a debt-to-GDP ratio of 73 percent.

Because families are hurting, the economy is slowing and the nation is struggling, we expect that these two candidates will treat these domestic policy issues tonight with the seriousness and specificity they deserve.

Americans need answers to some challenging questions. How can we spur long-lasting economic growth? Will it be through continued macro-economic stimulus, through micro-economic incentives or some mix of the two? How can we begin to rein in our exploding federal debt? Will it be through spending cuts, tax increases or some mix of the two?

There are those who will be keeping score on zingers and gaffes. Our own scorecard will be looking for substance and leadership. Who has command of the brutal facts? Who can speak frankly and persuasively to the American people about our perilous domestic challenges? Who has a clear, specific and pragmatically actionable plan for improvement? And who can make the case for why they and their administration would be the most competent at leading America out of its economic morass?

The tough times we live in demand seriousness, substance and specificity. We expect nothing less from our presidential candidates.