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Presidential debate: Which questions might trip up Obama, Romney?

Why don't you support the DREAM Act, Mr. Romney? What economic missteps have you made, President Obama? Both candidates could face tricky questions in Wednesday's debate.

By Staff writer / October 2, 2012

A worker on Tuesday cleans lint off the background of the stage for a presidential debate at the University of Denver Wednesday.

David Goldman/AP

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Boulder, Colo.

On Wednesday, expect both presidential candidates to be pushed on some uncomfortable issues.

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How willing they are to address tough questions head-on will vary, of course – there is still plenty of room in a debate format to dodge the issue – but one purpose of a debate is to push candidates beyond their stump speeches.

In a first, moderator Jim Lehrer has already given advance notice of the broad topics he plans to cover: three questions on the economy, one on health care, one on governing, and one on the role of government.

But that could change, and his list is also so vague as to leave room for almost anything.

So, what are some of the questions that could – or should – come up in Denver Wednesday night?

Expect both candidates to be pushed hard on the economy.

For Mitt Romney, one of the toughest questions might revolve around his now infamous comment to private donors that 47 percent of the country “believe that they are victims” and pay no federal income taxes.

Any question that pushes Romney on those comments – and forces him to explain how his economic policies could benefit the middle class rather than just the wealthy – could put him in a difficult position, says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University in New Jersey.

It could also provide Romney with an opportunity, Professor Zelizer notes – but only if he has the right demeanor.

“In answering, it’s not simply that he says the right things about the middle class, but that he appears genuine,” says Zelizer. “Romney has to display a kind of humanity that’s often missing.”

And economic questions could put President Obama in a tricky position too – particularly if Mr. Lehrer presses him on why, despite his policies and the stimulus, the economy is still in as bad shape as it is.

Mr. Obama’s transition team forecast that the stimulus would keep unemployment from going above 8 percent, and instead it hasn’t gone below 8 percent, notes Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

“If they haven’t anticipated that question, then [the debate prep team] is pretty hopeless,” he adds.

In Romney’s case, says Professor Pitney, they should also be anticipating some question on the 47 percent issue that explores where those policies came from: “Ronald Reagan made a big point of taking lower-income Americans off the income-tax rolls,” for instance. “Why do you think Reagan was wrong?”

And both candidates might be pushed beyond where they’re comfortable going on economic specifics: what programs they’d cut to reduce the deficit and, in Romney’s case, what exactly he’d do differently from Obama to make the economy improve.

Health care is certainly going to come up, and is a somewhat difficult topic, complete with a lot of potential pitfalls, for both candidates.

“Obama will have to talk about health care, why this is a good bill, and why it was more important than focusing on the economy or focusing on continued stimulus,” says Zelizer.

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