DENVER — President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will be poised during their debate at the University of Denver tonight to seize on the sharp exchange, the memorable quip or the opponent's gaffe that could lead the news accounts afterward and define the evening for voters.
What this debate also just might provide is an exploration of the considerable differences between the candidates on how they would boost the slow recovery and their views on the role of government in the 21st century.
That hasn't really happened so far.
Even though the two sides effectively have been campaigning against one another for most of the year, the vast majority of ads have been negative and the points of attack often an ill-considered comment by the other guy, sometimes taken out of context — from Obama's "you didn't build that" to Romney's "I like to fire people."
The candidates and their running mates continue to provide fuel for those fires. The latest examples are a secretly recorded fundraiser in which Romney said that 47 percent of Americans are government-dependent "victims" and Vice President Biden's comment at a rally this week that the middle class has been "buried" by economic woes for the past four years. (That would be during Obama's first term.)
Tonight, however, the length of the debate, the relatively unstructured format and the focus on just four broad topics are designed to make it hard to sustain the tit for tat of the campaign trail. For 90 minutes, standing side by side, the two contenders are slated to discuss various aspects of the economy for 45 minutes, then health care, governing and the role of government for 15 minutes each.
In each of the quarter-hour segments, in response to a question posed by moderator Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour, the candidates will have two minutes to respond. For the next 10 minutes, they're supposed to discuss the issue at hand.
They have a lot to talk about.
The ideological divide between Obama and Romney on dominant questions of the day — this year, it's the economy and its slow climb out of recession — is as wide as it has been in any presidential election in more than a generation. The election of one or the other would take the country down significantly divergent paths.
Although there is always a difference between the Democratic and Republican views, the divide this time has been exacerbated by circumstance and politics.
In some ways, Obama is defending a more liberal record for the past four years than he outlined during the 2008 campaign, including a bailout of the auto industry and an $833 billion stimulus bill. He also signed the Affordable Care Act, a signature campaign promise that expanded the federal government's hand in health care, although he failed to win action on climate change or immigration.
Romney, meanwhile, has endorsed a more conservative agenda this year than he followed during his tenure as Massachusetts governor, when he worked with a state Legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats. Some of the positions he took in the GOP primaries this year may have been a political necessity in his bid to win the nomination of an increasingly conservative party whose energy has been fueled by the Tea Party movement.
As a result, there is a more conservative Romney and a more liberal Obama facing off in this election than their previous political lives might have signaled.
They have fundamental differences on some of the biggest tasks the next president will face:
To foster economic growth, Romney proposes across-the-board tax cuts plus reduced government regulation and spending to unleash the private sector. Obama supports targeted tax breaks and government spending on education and infrastructure to boost the middle class.
To reduce the federal deficit, Obama backs what he calls a "balanced" mix of spending cuts and tax hikes on the most affluent. Romney promises a dramatic cut in federal spending to 20 percent of GDP, from 23 percent today. He would slash discretionary and some entitlement spending, though he says he would protect defense spending and programs for retirees and near-retirees.
To sustain Medicare, Romney would give future retirees a fixed subsidy to buy health care coverage through the traditional Medicare program or from private insurers. He would reduce benefits for the most affluent. Obama, who attacks Romney's proposal as a risky "voucher" plan, has said he would consider changes to Medicare as part of a broader deficit-reduction package but hasn't provided details.
To provide access to health care, Obama defends the overhaul he signed into law, emphasizing popular provisions that have helped children with pre-existing conditions and young adults. Romney vows to sign waivers to the law and repeal it, saying states should have more room to innovate and experiment.
And on taxes, Romney wants to extend the Bush tax cuts, cut individual rates by another 20 percent across the board and reduce the corporate tax to 25 percent from 35 percent. He says he would limit some deductions but hasn't provided details of how his plan would add up. Obama would extend the Bush tax cuts for households earning less than $250,000 a year, end them for the most affluent and impose a new tax on people making $1 million or more a year.
The first debate is likely to be the best opportunity of the election to explore these issues. The second presidential debate, at Hofstra University on Long Island, is a town-hall format. The third, at Lynn College in Florida, is focused on foreign policy.
Before the debate began, not everyone was convinced that serious discussion would happen.Comment on this story
"Debates have the potential for that" but it is rarely fulfilled, acknowledges Gary Bauer, a Republican presidential contender in 2000 who now heads the conservative group American Values. "The two almost end up having simultaneous press conferences," he says.
"There's the real possibility of substance breaking out in this debate, but I wouldn't bet on it," says Matt Bennett of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. "My sense is that they would revert to talking points to drive messages that are poll-tested, because that's what you do in debate prep. ... But who knows? I hope to be wrong."