Stakes are high for Romney in first presidential debate

Published: Saturday, Sept. 29 2012 1:47 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this July 20, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Bow, N.H.

Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney’s first debate with President Barack Obama Wednesday may be one of the GOP nominee’s final chances to turn around a race that polls show increasingly favors the incumbent.

But political observers suggest the odds are against Romney seeing a significant surge in support after the 90-minute debate at the University of Denver. With early voting getting underway in many states, time is running out to change the course of the election.

“Sooner or later, he’s going to have to try for the knockout,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University, a high-stakes risk that campaigns usually try to avoid.

Just matching the president punch for punch on stage won’t be enough to close the widening gap between the candidates, particularly in swing states like Colorado where the election will likely be decided, Saunders said.

Obama leads by nearly 3 points in Colorado, according to a RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls. Nationally, the same website puts Obama ahead of Romney by an average of more than 4 points based on recent polls. 

“He has to do something different,” Saunders said. “These debates are some of the last opportunities Romney has to persuade the electorate and change the narrative.”

Exactly what the former Salt Lake Olympic leader needs to do in the debate to score with voters is not clear, he said.

“There is a potential for Romney to make a difference. I just don’t know what that looks like,” Saunders said.

In Ohio, another swing state, Ohio State University political science professor Nathaniel Swigger said debates seldom attract much attention from the undecided voters that both candidates are courting.

“If you think about it, you’re much more likely to watch a football game if you’re cheering for one of the teams to win,” Swigger said. “Politics is the same. And let’s face it, if you’re an undecided voter at this point, chances are you’re not really engaged.”

Obama is up by as much as 10 points in some Ohio polls, RealClearPolitics.com reported, and leading by an average of more than 5 points in a state that traditionally is seen as a must-win to get to the White House.

Swigger said he doesn’t expect Wednesday's debate to have much impact on those numbers.

“Truthfully, it’s really, really, really, really difficult to move the needle with a presidential debate,” he said. “If Romney is going to get any kind of momentum out of the debate, he needs something really, really incredible to happen.”

Time magazine’s White House correspondent, Michael Scherer, said many Americans likely won’t be watching the debates despite what's at stake.

“They’re not the Super Bowl,” said Scherer, also an author of Time’s “The Essential Voter’s Guide.”

Romney’s campaign has long seen the debates as crucial, he said, but that’s more true than ever given some of the difficulties the GOP candidate has encountered in recent weeks.

Those include the surfacing of a video shot at a private fundraiser where Romney describes nearly half of the electorate as Obama supporters who are dependent on government and view themselves as victims.

“September has been a bad month,” Scherer said. “What he’s got to do is show not only he’s a compassionate guy, a straight shooter, and he has a plan and he’s competent and capable of carrying out the plan.”

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