On Wednesday, expect both presidential candidates to be pushed on some uncomfortable issues.
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.
Romney, on the other hand, still hasn’t explained to some voters’ satisfaction why his position on health care has changed.
The fact-checker team at The Washington Post has also come up with a list of tough questions based on candidates' suspect claims. For Example: Romney has said he would reduce the size of government while boosting defense spending and reversing the slowdown in Medicare spending – a plan some experts have said doesn't add up. He could be asked what he would cut to make the numbers work.
Or Obama could be asked when he’ll start taking responsibility for economic missteps on his watch – and whether there are any economic decisions he regrets. Multiple fact-checking organizations have questioned his claim that 90 percent of the deficit on his watch came from Bush-era policies.
Beyond the economy and health care, it’s unclear – and somewhat doubtful, given that this debate format favors fewer questions and longer discussion times – whether domestic issues like immigration, gun control, trade, education, or climate change will come up. But some of those have pitfalls as well.
Immigration is a particularly thorny issue for Romney, given the resistance in much of the Republican party to any policy smacking of amnesty. On Monday, Romney clarified his stance somewhat on Obama’s controversial Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, sometimes referred to as the DREAM Act-lite.
Romney has been pressured recently to explain what he would do about undocumented immigrants granted temporary work status under the program. DACA essentially gives a two-year visa to some undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children, have lived here at least five years, and are still age 30 or under, among other requirements.
Romney told The Denver Post Monday that he would not rescind work permits for those who have received them – but that still doesn’t answer what he’d do about the hundreds of thousands who may have pending applications, or whether he’d allow the program to continue. It’s a tricky question for him, given how popular the program is among the Hispanic voting groups he’d like to court, and how unpopular it is among many conservatives.
Gun control is another possibility as a sleeper question, especially given the debate’s proximity to both Aurora, Colo., and Littleton, Colo., where the Columbine shootings took place. And it’s likely not a question either candidate would welcome, given how evasive they’ve been about gun control in the past – and how unpopular the issue is among many key swing voters.
On Monday, the United Against Illegal Guns Support Fund unveiled an ad featuring Stephen Barton, one of the shooting victims in this past summer’s Aurora movie theater shooting, posing that question himself.
“When you watch the presidential debates, ask yourself: Who has a plan to stop gun violence?” Mr. Barton says in the ad. “Let’s demand a plan.”
It’s unclear whether the candidates will have to answer that question themselves Wednesday night, but their answers to that – and other tough questions – might be illuminating.