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Originally published October 2, 2012 at 7:47 PM | Page modified October 3, 2012 at 12:36 PM

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Tonight's debate: the men, the topics, the stagecraft

For 90 minutes, President Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney will be essentially equal, creating what Romney's advisers believe is a critical opportunity to make a move in the race.

The New York Times

Join us for tonight's presidential debate

The Seattle Times will live-stream Wednesday's first-of-the-season presidential debate from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on seattletimes.com.

We'll have a conversation in real time with David Domke, political communications expert and chairman of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington; Elizabeth Wiley, a student contributor to the UW Election Eye blog; Seattle Times political editor Richard Wagoner; assistant political editor Joni Balter; and political reporter Jim Brunner.

Key dates

Obama-Romney debates

Wednesday: In Denver, to focus on domestic policy. It is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. PDT and will be broadcast live on C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and KCTS, and all cable-news channels, including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. It will also be streamed live online.

Oct. 16: Town-hall-style session on foreign and domestic policy in Hempstead, N.Y.

Oct. 22: Foreign policy is the scheduled topic in Boca Raton, Fla.

Biden-Ryan debate

Oct. 11: Session in Danville, Ky., is to focus on foreign and domestic policy.

Election Day

Nov. 6

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DENVER — President Obama will have the first word at the presidential debate. Mitt Romney will have the last word. But even before they step onto the stage and shake hands here Wednesday evening, voters across the country are already starting to have the final word.

With a little more than a month left in the race, and early voting under way in 35 states, that is the reality facing Obama and Romney as they meet for the first of three face-to-face debates. While Republicans concede that time may be fading for Romney to change the dynamic of the campaign, Democrats know it has not faded yet, and both men face risks — and rewards — for their performances.

A presidential race between an incumbent and a challenger, which has played out in biting television commercials and fiery speeches, suddenly narrows to a pair of candidates standing side by side starting at 6 p.m. Pacific time. For 90 minutes, the rivals will be essentially equal, creating what Romney's advisers believe is a critical opportunity to make a move in the race.

There will be no rigid time limits, buzzers or cheering that often threatened to turn the GOP primary debates into a recurring political game show. The debate will be divided into six segments of 15 minutes, with ample opportunity for robust exchanges and a level of specificity that both sides have often sought to avoid.

As Romney took a lunch break Tuesday, he told reporters, "I'm getting there," when asked whether he was ready for one of the biggest moments of his campaign. In Nevada, where Obama practiced for the debate, he went for a quick tour of Hoover Dam.

Here is a look at a few things to watch — in style and in substance — as the debate unfolds at the University of Denver, here in the battleground state of Colorado, for the first of three encounters between the president and Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.

Rivals: The two men may spend considerable time talking about each other, but they know each other only from afar. They have not appeared on the same stage in nearly eight years, when they both spoke at the winter Gridiron Dinner in 2004, a white-tie gathering on the social calendar of official Washington, D.C.

While advisers to Obama and Romney said the two men seem to have little genuine appreciation for each other, it is unlikely their true feelings will be on display. The president, who has yet to live down an offhand remark from a debate in 2008 when he told Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton she was merely "likable enough," has been warned by his aides to avoid being smug.

Romney may have a bit more latitude in this regard as he tries to show Republicans — and undecided voters — that he can forcefully challenge the president and regain command of the race.

Topics: The debate is to focus on domestic issues, with a particular emphasis on the economy. There is no shortage of material, considering the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent.

But even though the rationale of Romney's candidacy is rooted in his business experience and his promise to revive the economy, advisers said that he will try to broaden the argument against Obama's job performance by raising questions about how his administration handled the attack on a diplomatic mission last month in Libya that killed four Americans.

The challenge for both men in the debate, to be moderated by Jim Lehrer, will be to enliven the conversation with fresh details. There are many potential flash points, including health care (the national plan signed into law by the president and the Massachusetts law signed by Romney); the nation's fiscal crisis; and solutions for reaching a comprehensive deficit-reduction deal, including the willingness to raise taxes and overhauling the nation's tax code.

Stagecraft: A coin toss determines speaking order. Obama opens and Romney closes. Their respective campaign representatives have spent days on details as small as how many family members can take the stage after the debate, a sign that almost nothing will be left to chance.

Yet the chemistry between the two candidates cannot be rehearsed, and their interactions could be just as important as the answers to the debate questions. Romney has practiced being "respectfully aggressive," a senior adviser said, with a goal of pleasing Republicans who believe he has been too passive. At the same time, the objective is to not turn off independent voters, women or others who may be disappointed with Obama's policies but still like him.

Romney's goal is to use the audience of tens of millions of American to show that he can be trusted to improve their lives.

"In my view it's not so much winning and losing — it's about something bigger than that," Romney told supporters here Monday night. "These debates are an opportunity for each of us to describe a pathway forward."

The president, who polls show has developed a lead in several battleground states, has been instructed by aides to use humor and his wide smile to fend off attempts to be drawn into the fray. He is aiming to be confident and humble about his first term, one adviser said, in hopes of avoiding coming across as "arrogant or dismissive."

Both candidates will come to the debate armed with well-practiced one-liners, the moments they hope will become sound bites that will shape the narrative in the days to come. It will be telling how long they wait before starting to unload them and how they address one another from the outset of the debate.

Old vs. New: The general-election debates, which pushed presidential campaigns into the television age a half-century ago, are facing a new test. The rise of social media has already reshaped the race, raising questions of whether the audience will match the 52.8 million viewers who tuned into the first debate between Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., four years ago.

But this year, on the eve of the first debate, Ohio became the second battleground state Tuesday to open its doors to early voting. And by the time the third debate takes place Oct. 22, tens of millions of Americans will have already voted.

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