President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney come face-to-face for the first time in this presidential campaign Wednesday night for a nationally televised debate that will give millions of Americans a chance to size up two fierce competitors in a moment of high-risk theater.
Romney, trailing in polls in a number of key states and running short on time to reverse his fortunes, is angling for a breakout performance in the three 90-minute presidential debates scheduled over the next three weeks.
Obama, well aware that the remaining five weeks of the race still offer enough time for tectonic shifts in his prospects, is determined to avoid any campaign-altering mistakes as he presses his case for a second term.
Here are five things to watch for in tonight's debate:
1. ROMNEY MAKES HIS MOVE: He needs to re-energize his campaign after slipping in the polls. Can he do it by going on attack? Watch for Romney to lay into Obama's policies with gusto while trying to avoid getting too personal with his criticism, which could backfire. Obama needs to stay calm and hold his ground.
2. OBAMA ON DEFENSE: He's stuck trying to defend a painfully slow economic recovery. Can a sitting president sell the idea that he knows how to make the next four years better than his first four? Or does Obama mostly try to divert attention by slamming Romney's economic plans?
3. ABOUT THAT 47 PERCENT: Romney faces his biggest audience yet in the wake of his remarks about "47 percent of Americans." He'll try to dispel the notion that he's uncaring toward people who depend on government benefits or don't pay income tax. Can he recast his remarks as a critique of an economy that leaves so many needing food stamps and unemployment checks?
4. HOW THEY SAY IT: Watch for a clumsy gesture or errant look that says more than words -- remember Al Gore sighing, George H.W. Bush checking his watch. Listen for tone of voice, too. Does Obama come across as arrogant or aloof? Does Romney seem awkward or out of touch? Did that zinger sound natural -- or forced? Humor is welcome relief, but it's tricky to pull off.
5. A SURPRISE: They try to prepare for every scenario, but something will catch the candidates off guard. That's the telling moment. How well do they respond? Romney occasionally lost his cool with GOP primary opponents. Obama tends to lapse into long-winded answers and troublesome phrasing. Will either man be flustered into a mistake?
Watch the debate with the NBC political team on KING 5, coverage starts at 6:00 p.m.