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.”

When Romney picked House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate, Democrats salivated at the chance to frighten the reliable senior electorate with charges that coverage would be incinerated. Republicans vowed to remind the nation of the scaremongering pushing-granny-over-a-cliff-by-Ryan-doppelganger campaign against entitlement reform waged against the congressman’s Path to Prosperity. Granted, this face-off will be most pronounced in the vice presidential debate — Ryan vs. Joe Biden, who has been stressing at every campaign stop how Ryan’s reforms would have hurt his old mum. But Obama will also be trying Romney for the Ryan plan, and this is likely comprising a large chunk of Romney’s Portman prep.

Fair’s fair
What you might not hear so much as in campaign stumps past is the word “fair” — there’s a new definition of redistribution in town. “What I want to promote is a new economic patriotism, one that’s rooted in the belief that we grow the economy best when everybody has got a shot and the middle class is thriving,” Obama told the campaign audience in Las Vegas. White House press secretary Jay Carney first said it at Thursday’s gaggle aboard Air Force One, and Obama used the “economic patriotism” phrase at campaign events Thursday in Virginia Beach and Friday at the Capital Hilton in Washington. Same concept, but Obama has edited his own F-word for national audience, middle of the road, flag-waving consumption.

Political dentistry
“The path I’m offering may be harder, but it leads to a better place,” Obama said last night, echoing a rhetorical turn that’s accompanied “economic patriotism.” It may not be the most positive debate message: grin, bear it, grab on to something, grimace, and ride through the pain to those second-term promises. But Obama’s message will be that taking the pain is the economically patriotic thing to do. “So no matter how hard the path may seems sometimes, the path I’m offering leads to a better place,” he told the Virginia Beach crowd.

A lack of barn-busters
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went the opposite of the “downplay your chances” mantra with a superconfident spree on the Sunday talk shows. “Wednesday night is the restart of this campaign and I think you’re going to see those numbers start to move right back in the other direction,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press. But don’t hold your breath for the “I paid for this microphone” moment at which the nation stands and cheers and droves convert. Twitter will decide in a matter of seconds what the best and worst lines were, and the candidates will be at the mercy of social-media crucifixion. But stunning game-changers are not expected.

Obama and Romney hate each other. These mutual daggers will ooze into living rooms across America for three nights in October. Not to say that Biden and Ryan are best friends, but they both have a down-to-earth congeniality that doesn’t come across as sheer, unremitting disgust for one’s political opponent. In the Republican primary debates, depending on who was leading in the polls that week, Romney would turn to Santorum or Cain or Gingrich with a bemused, condescending look on his face when his challenger was speaking. But he’s met his smug debate match: Think back to Obama telling Hillary Clinton “you’re likable enough,” then going back to his notes-jotting.