After all the negative advertising, campaign promises and gaffes, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are set to have the first of their critical debates on Oct. 3 in Denver. While political scientists argue that, with a few exceptions, the personal face-offs have not been decisive, they have become high television drama, and this year's series should be no exception.
Mr. Romney, while running close in the national polls, has remained a question mark. Even after the string of televised Republican primary debates and an avalanche of advertising, it is still unclear to many voters is what makes him tick and what specifically he intends to do about the economic challenge he will face if he wins in November.
President Obama, on the other hand, after nearly four years in the Oval Office is pretty much an open book, although he has disappointed many of his followers by failing to break the deadlock in Congress over his own remedies for the economy.
His repeated lament that he inherited an unholy financial mess from his Republican predecessor did not save him from taking what he termed a "shellacking" in the midterm congressional elections in 2010. And that same message seems to have little traction with the electorate this time around.
Nevertheless, his personal popularity remains surprisingly high during an election campaign the Republicans had hoped would be a referendum on him and his tenure. So the approaching debates appear to have become more a test of Mr. Romney's credibility as a master turn-around artist in governing, as he proved to be in the business world.
Before the GOP convention, Mr. Romney released an action agenda of more than 50 items and then boiled it down to five general working points. But he has still failed to put enough meat on the bone to entice undecided voters, or to satisfy many of the party faithful.
So the first of the three presidential debates a week from Wednesday shapes up as more of a challenge to him to fill in the blanks — personal and programmatical — than for Mr. Obama, who promises only to keep on keeping on the course he's set.
Had the debates begun a few weeks earlier, Mr. Romney might well have been in a better position to take advantage of the huge public exposure at hand. But the Republican convention apparently failed to give him much of a boost, while Mr. Obama's poll numbers crept up after the livelier Democratic show. And then came the most politically explosive campaign disclosure yet, throwing Mr. Romney sharply on the defensive.
That was the airing of his remarks at a closed fund-raiser in which he seemed to be writing off nearly half of the electorate as dependent recipients of government programs who would not be voting for him. The leaked comments forced him to pivot from his economic message and spend much of the last week insisting that as president he would work to better the lot of all Americans.
Such a pledge is one that no presidential candidate should ever have to make; in stating it, Mr. Romney has set himself up for a hammering in the debates. The assault predictably will come over his comprehension of the plight of a majority of Americans suffering through the current high unemployment and now looking to the government to extend them a helping hand.
Efforts to cast Mr. Obama as a champion of the redistribution of wealth, a phrase right out of an old socialist handbook and an old Obama speech, may hearten doctrinaire conservative hearts. But they're not likely to combat Mr. Romney's latest self-inflicted wound, which added to his public persona as a rich guy who doesn't get what other Americans are going through and who doesn't care because many of them are irrelevant to his election chances.
All along, the debates figured to be a critical opportunity for Mr. Romney to close the sale on his presidential bid. Now they may be his best life preserver as his ship tries to navigate through its roughest waters to date. That fact alone should assure a very large viewership, at least for the opening encounter.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.