WASHINGTON // There are the debates. Then there are the strategies.
When Barack Obama, the US president, and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, square off for the first of three presidential televised debates tomorrow, the onus will be on Mr Romney to arrest a slide in the polls that suggests the November 6 election is slipping away from him.
Polls have Mr Obama, a Democrat, running ahead of Mr Romney by between two and seven per cent in key states. Gallup puts him in front by six per cent in its most recent national poll.
That makes it crunch time for Mr Romney, said Robert Lehrman, professor of public communications at American University in Washington, DC. The former governor of Massachusetts needs to offer a detailed vision of the future: it's the person trailing that "takes the risks", he said.
"The people who are undecided, who are more malleable, are asking, 'what's ahead'?" said Mr Lehrman.
"How is Romney going to present an alternative that will make my life better?"
Mr Romney has so far heeded the traditional rule of campaigning and not offered too many policy details lest they leave him open to attack. He has promised to reform the tax code and close loopholes, but he has not said how or which ones.
Instead, he has been telling Americans they are not better off today than they were four years ago when Mr Obama took office, pointing to the sluggish economic recovery and high unemployment. Certain economic indicators are beginning to look up, however. House prices are rising along with consumer confidence while unemployment is slowly dropping. In view of the polls, Mr Romney needs to do something different.
Getting specific during the debates is a risk worth taking. In 2008, more than 52 million people tuned in to watch the first debate.
Mr Romney has a few things going for him. He's an articulate speaker, though occasionally gaffe prone - just ask those in Britain who dubbed him "Mitt the Twit" when he managed to offend them during an error-strewn foreign trip ahead of the London Olympic Games this past summer.
He looks and dresses the part of a president, said Mr Lehrman, and having been through a gruelling primary race that narrowed the list of Republican candidates, he will also be battle-hardened for the debates.
Tomorrow's debate will focus on domestic policy where Mr Romney has a "case to lay out and make", said Jeffrey Weis, a political consultant and a veteran of several Republican presidential campaigns. "This is a huge opportunity for him. The public is really now paying attention."
But Democrats suggest it is also Mr Romney's last chance. It's very difficult to beat an incumbent president at the best of times, said Steve McMahon, a political consultant and a former media adviser to Howard Dean, a 2004 Democratic presidential hopeful.
"As the challenger, your challenge is to be presidential, offer an alternative vision, be positive, and at the same time convince people that re-electing the president would be a bad choice. You have to go after your opponent. And those things are incompatible."
Wednesday's debate, he said, is Mr Romney's "last chance to make a good first impression".
"He's consistently blown every chance he's had. He needs a remarkable and compelling debate performance to turn this election around."
Making his task all the more difficult, his opponent will likely play it safe. "I think Romney has to score on this first debate," said Mr Weiss. "Obama doesn't have to win this thing, he just has to avoid any mistakes. And he's not gaffe prone. Obama's playing not to lose."
History offers little succour to Mr Romney. Although compelling debate performances grip the imagination - Republican Ronald Reagan's demolition of Democrat Walter Mondale and Richard Nixon's shifty appearance against Democrat John F Kennedy - the evidence does not suggest they are decisive.
The closest was arguably Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, who some suggest blew his chance by appearing robotic and a little rude, sighing and rolling his eyes while his opponent, Republican George W Bush, spoke during their 2000 debates.
That, however, was a race so close it was eventually decided by a supreme court ruling. There are too many factors in any campaign, said Mr Lehrman, for debates to "single-handedly shift" an election.
But they remain Mr Romney's only hope, said Mr McMahon, the first in particular, which, he said, frames the narrative for the subsequent debates. "This isn't the end. But it is the beginning of the end."