10 Things to Expect at the First Presidential Debate

With Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) portraying Mitt Romney and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) acting as President Obama, the 2012 presidential hopefuls are crunching in their last days of prep before facing off for the first of three nationally televised debates Wednesday.

The University of Denver event, beginning at 9 p.m. Eastern time, is a domestic-policy gauntlet moderated by Jim Lehrer. Subject to "possible changes because of news developments," Lehrer picked the topics: three parts on the economy, and other 15-minute segments on health care, the role of government, and governing.

We've seen and heard much from Romney and Obama on the campaign trail, but what might we hear in their first debate?

Cayman Islands

Don't expect Obama to go Full Harry Reid and accuse Romney of not paying taxes. Obama has learned by this point that it's Reid's job to say crazy stuff, and it's his job to either nod politely, nod enthusiastically, or pretend like he didn't hear it. The Obama camp is more than happy, though, to go after tax shelters as a double-edged weapon: use it as proof to convince Congress that the rich are dodging taxes and therefore Bush-era tax cuts shouldn't be extended for upper-income brackets, and use it on the campaign trail to try to convince the electorate that Romney is out-of-touch wildly wealthy. An unwise rebuttal would be the Ann Romney route of telling a reporter that they don't even know what's in their blind trust. A wise rebuttal would steer the conversation to the small-business owners who fall in those upper-income brackets and may have to cut jobs if their taxes went up.

47 percent

Obama just might as well prop up an old-school projector and loop Mother Jones' undercover fundraiser video, because he wants to have those dim tabletop candles and Romney words branded in voters' minds from now until Nov. 6. "As I travel around the state, I don't see a lot of victims. I see a lot of hardworking Nevadans," he cooed to his Las Vegas audience last night. The big question here is if Romney will be able to go on the offensive against Obama on this issue of government dependency. The Romney camp wishes the tape would disappear, but there are three debates to get through questions about the 47 percent (yep, I wouldn't put a dropping of that digit past Obama in the foreign policy debate), and where the GOP hopeful does not want to be is on the defensive.

The Very Poor

It's a mystery why the Romney remark you'd think the Obama camp would have plastered across TV outlets from Ohio to Florida still hasn't been whipped out from the campaign arsenal. More than quipping about car elevators or whether Mitt's shirts really come from Costco, you'd think they'd be cementing the meme of an elitist Romney by bringing up the months-old comment "I'm not concerned about the very poor." He went on to say "my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans," to which the Dem will eagerly respond "my campaign is about all Americans." Perhaps Obama was saving it until debate time so he could try to shame Romney personally on national TV. Perhaps they're saving it for an October surprise, complete with poor Americans to whom Romney allegedly didn't show concern.

Southwestern flair

When asked why Obama was doing his debate prep in Henderson, Nev., campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday that "it's a place where people care deeply about having someone in office who will fight for comprehensive immigration reform in the White House." The hometown audience offers advantages to both of the candidates, and perhaps an opportunity to press some of the regional concerns to a national audience. Obama can tout his DREAM Act-style immigration enforcement waivers, which Romney will brand as overstepping executive bounds in the guise of prosecutorial discretion. It's an opportunity for Romney to name-drop Fast and Furious in an area where the gun-walking scandal hits a bit closer to home at a time when it's back in the national headlines.

RomneyCare's biggest fan

Replay the key concerns of Romney's detractors in the Republican primary: Since Romney offered a prelude to ObamaCare with his own health-care reform as governor in Massachusetts, he wouldn't have much of a leg to stand on in striking out at Obama's signature policy. More than that, Obama has been eager to mention Romney's inspirational stand against health-care insurers at every opportunity, framing RomneyCare as the proud granddaddy of ObamaCare. Romney says he will grant universal ObamaCare waivers on his first day in office, but the subject coming up in the debates will likely not turn out too well for the former governor. It would keep him on the defensive while resurrecting the GOP primary message -- which got a new life at the Democratic National Convention -- of the "Mitt-flop."