Realistically, the pressure is on Mitt Romney, he is the one who is down in this election right now, the candidate that needs to make a splash. Even the voters believe that Romney is the underdog -- in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, registered voters believe that President Obama will win this debate by a two to one margin.
Romney's challenge will be to change the focus of his campaign. So far, the election has been completely on Romney's failings and his campaign has appeared incapable of getting on the offensive. In the debate, Romney needs to make the campaign about a choice, or a referendum on Obama and his handling of the economy. The Republican hopeful also needs to pivot to what he is going to do specifically. If Romney does not have those specifics ready to go when he is -- and he will be -- pushed to spell them out, he will be in big trouble with voters. They want to see who this candidate is; they have seen a lot of negative information about Romney, mostly from ads from the Obama campaign, they want to take an unvarnished look at the Republican candidate.
Because the expectations on Obama are so high, the president has to be careful to not look too smug, glib, or dismissive of Romney. Or dismissive of the fact that the country is still in an economic struggle. Obama must prove that he, too, understands that under his administration, things have not always gone smoothly.
If 2012 was only about the economy, however, the president would already be losing. Romney can use the economy as a baseline, but should make the debate more broadly about leadership, make the case that the president is in over his head. And beyond the policy details, Romney needs a zinger, a line, something that will enter the pantheon of famous debate moments. Romney needs to say something memorable -- hopefully something that does not involve the words 47 percent.
For more on the debate expectations, check out this week's Top Line.