7:24PM EST October 2. 2012 - WASHINGTON - If Mitt Romney is going to change the trajectory of a close race that is bending in President Obama's direction, his best opportunity will be during 90 minutes on a Denver stage Wednesday night.
Obama has opened a modest advantage over Romney since the political conventions ended last month, especially in the battleground states. But as the presidential rivals prepare to face off in the first of three debates, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows Obama with vulnerabilities and Romney with assets - even on the question of whether Americans have become too dependent on the government.
The question: Can the Republican challenger seize on those openings? If he fails - and he admittedly has struggled since clinching the GOP nomination in the spring - his path to victory over the final four weeks of the campaign becomes much steeper.
"The vast majority of viewers tune in to these debates to cheer their candidate on; they've made their decision and want that decision confirmed," says Mitchell McKinney, an associate professor at the University of Missouri who studies presidential debates and political communication. But there also will be viewers who are only "weakly committed" to a candidate "and still need some persuading."
Almost eight in 10 Americans in the USA TODAY poll say there's nothing either candidate could say or do in the debates that would change their minds about their vote. Still, one of five say the debates could sway them - including 24% of Obama supporters and 18% of Romney supporters.
Those "persuadable" voters call for more specifics, less rhetoric and fewer attacks. "Act more like four years ago," one respondent said in response to an open-ended question included in the survey. Others who are leaning to Romney but open to Obama's case cited particular issues, from doing more on the environment to saving the coal industry. And a tall order: "Come up with all the answers for all the problems."
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The debates are a chance for Obama to win back the vote of Elizabeth Gower, 49, of Tacoma, Wash. "Four years ago, my husband and I voted for Obama, and I think it was awesome that he got elected," she said in a follow-up interview with USA TODAY. "But as far as I'm concerned, he's blown it." She worries that the Affordable Care Act the president signed into law may subject her family to fines because they don't have health insurance and can't afford to buy it. She'd like to hear him on that.
Voters who were leaning to Obama but open to hearing from Romney volunteered that Romney should show that he would focus on the concerns of people like them. "He needs to help the middle class instead of keep helping the rich," one said in the survey. Several said they'd like to hear not only that he would repeal the health care law but also what he would do in its stead. "Just say what he would do as president," one advised.
"It's OK that he was a businessman and very wealthy, but I think he should be honest and open about that," Paul Rayman, 24, the operations manager at a distribution center in Indianapolis, said in a follow-up interview. He was put off by Romney's comment at a campaign event that students who can't afford college should borrow money from their parents. "That was really laughable for a lot of people," Rayman says, and as he sees it, a sign Romney doesn't understand the tough economic times many face.
"He needs to say he would in office seek out the opinions of others on how to address those concerns and understand," he says.
Then there's that damaging "47%" video. For weeks, Romney has been forced to spend time and air ads aimed at repairing damage from comments he made on a secretly taped video at a fundraiser in May, posted online by the liberal Mother Jones magazine. In them, he described 47% of Americans as "victims" who are dependent on government and unwilling to take responsibility for their lives. Obama jumped on the comments as harsh, inaccurate and unpresidential.
Despite the negative fallout, Romney's general point resonates with many voters. By 2-1, 64%-33%, those surveyed agree that Americans are too dependent on the federal government. A solid majority, 57%, say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. One-third, 34%, think the government should do more to solve the country's problems.
Romney's weaknesses on other fronts has made it difficult for him to tap that support for a less expensive and less intrusive government. His favorable-unfavorable rating is an anemic 47%-48%. The biggest personal shortcoming found in the survey is the belief that he doesn't understand the problems Americans face in their lives.
One critical task for him is to convince them that he does.
At the same time, he needs to be on the attack against Obama. "He has to make the case that the president's policies are directly responsible for the bad economy," says Brett O'Donnell, a Republican consultant who advised Romney during some of the GOP primaries. "He's got to stay on offense throughout the entirety of the debate."
Why they're undecided
Most Americans surveyed like Obama. His favorable-unfavorable rating is 55%-44%, his best standing this year. By 20 percentage points, they say he understands better than Romney the challenges of their lives. By smaller margins, they say he is more likely to share their values, to be a strong leader, and to keep his campaign promises - all assets in a presidential contest.
But when it comes to handling the issue they see as most important - the economy - they remain unconvinced Obama is up to the job. A majority of those surveyed, 52%, predict the U.S. economy won't be better in four years if he wins a second term; 40% say it will be worse.
Romney continues to have an edge when it comes to managing the economy - albeit a smaller one than he had before months of Democratic ads attacking his record at Bain Capital - and on handling the federal budget deficit. If he is elected, 50% of those surveyed predict the U.S. economy will be better in four years; 35% say it will be worse.
John Davis, 69, a retired chef from Reading, Pa., is an undecided voter because of his mixed views of both candidates. "I want to hear some kind of positive answer of how they're going to bring our country back together again," says Davis, who was called in the poll. "Romney sounds good on the economy, but he seems a little lean on diplomatic issues, foreign policy issues. Obama sounds good on foreign policy, but he's lousy with our economics. So I'm still up in the air."
Obama has a 26-point advantage when it comes to handling social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and a significant one on foreign affairs and handling terrorism. On health care, energy, Medicare and taxes, his edge over his challenger is in single digits.
His approval rating has risen to 51%, the first time a majority of Americans have approved of the job he's doing as president since the brief boost he got after the killing of Osama bin Laden last year. In the poll, the president's narrow lead nationwide expands a bit in the 12 swing states but is still in single digits. (The swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.)
If Romney needs to use the debates to convince voters he understands their lives, Obama's task is to convince them he can be trusted to make those lives better.
"With an incumbent president in a debate, the principle question is: Should you be re-elected? Do you deserve four more years?" McKinney says. "Obama has to go beyond his message of 'it could be worse.' He needs to try to resurrect some of the 'hope' message that it will get better."
What history has shown
Debates can be powerful.
Ten of the past 13 presidential elections have included televised debates. In three of them (1960, 1980 and 2000), the eventual winner went into the first debate trailing in the Gallup Poll and came out of the last one ahead. In two more (1976 and 2004), the eventual winner lost significant ground during the debates. That opened an opportunity for the underdog in the campaign's final days, although in the end it didn't change the outcome.
Debates can't take a runaway race and make it a contest. In 1984 and 1996, popular incumbents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton swept to easy victories over Walter Mondale and Bob Dole. In 2008, the nation's financial collapse, not the debates, defined the campaign's final weeks and contributed to Obama's victory over John McCain.
When the contest is relatively close, especially if one of the candidates isn't well-known, the debates can narrow a race or even swing it.
Consider the impact in two of the three most recent elections:
In 2000, Al Gore went into the first of three debates leading George W. Bush by 8 points. After faceoffs in which his demeanor, his exaggerated sighs and even his makeup drew criticism, Gore trailed Bush by 4 points after the last one. Gore ended up narrowly winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College, a split decision that presumably would have been avoided with a wider lead.
The lead in the race also switched after the debates in 1960 and 1980, two contests with iconic debates. John Kennedy's appeal over a pale, sweaty Richard Nixon in 1960 stands as an object lesson for politicians in the television age. In 1980, Ronald Reagan's reassuring mien in his only debate with then-president Jimmy Carter - and his closing "are you better off?" query to voters - gave him a crucial boost.
In 2004, John Kerry went into the first of three debates trailing Bush by 11 points; he came out of the last one 3 points behind. Kerry failed to get it closer. On Election Day, Bush won a second term by 3 points.
This time, Americans by 57%-33% expect Obama to do a better job in the debates. Even 17% of Romney voters predict Obama will prevail; just 2% of Obama supporters expect Romney to do better.
Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic veteran who was Kerry's deputy campaign manager, sees parallels this time with the 2004 race and calls the debates critical. "There is a very small group of undecideds in this election, and maybe they won't watch all the debates," he says. "But my guess is their opinions will be moved by the debates.
"Romney is behind, and he needs to change the dynamic. His next opportunity, his last opportunity, is these debates."