Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney needs to make his mark in the first debate while President Barack Obama has to remain presidential.
Obama and Romney to square off in first US presidential debate
WASHINGTON // One looked too shifty, another too bored.
One US presidential candidate didn't know his Eastern Bloc from his Soviet sphere of influence and another saw his attempt to use his opponent's age against him backfire.
This week, the American election season comes to a head with the start tomorrow of the presidential debates. Weeks of preparation come down to the hours when the two candidates go live on television and have their final opportunity to make a case to the American people.
Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger currently trails Barack Obama, the incumbent president, in both national polls and in those of potential battleground states. October's three debates may be his last opportunity to make up ground before the election on November 6.
But there is no evidence that a good debate performance has ever propelled a candidate lagging in the polls past his opponent to victory, said Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington, DC.
Mr Lichtman said the historical record suggested rather that while presidential debates marked the "signal moment" of an election campaign and offered candidates a unique opportunity to present their positions, they ultimately had little impact on the outcome.
There are too many other factors that play a role for debates to "turn around a losing campaign", he said. In fact, debates sometimes have a counterintuitive impact. In 1976 when Republican Gerald Ford insisted that the Soviet Union did not dominate eastern Europe, and eventually lost to Jimmy Carter, the Democratic challenger, the only impact the gaffe had on a race he was already losing seemed to be to close the gap.
"Ford had been way behind in the polls and he came within two points despite that horrible mistake, so that debate didn't seem to have any effect," said Mr Lichtman
Moreover, the debates are also political theatre.
When John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon confronted each other in the first ever presidential debate in 1960, it was, like the eventual vote, close run. For those listening on the radio, polls suggested Mr Nixon came out on top.
But for those who watched the two candidates on TV, a pale and profusely sweating Nixon - the Republican vice president had just recovered from a flu but refused make-up - distracted from his words, handing a more earnest looking Kennedy the TV audience. Kennedy, a Democrat, also won the vote.
Lessons have been learnt since then and debates have become as much "image creator as substance conveyor", said Mr Lichtman.
Today, a "tremendous amount of effort" goes into preparing just the optics, said Jeffrey Weiss, a political consultant and veteran of several presidential campaigns.
There is even a coin toss to decide which side the candidates stand on stage.
Mr Lichtman lamented what he said was the influence of the "admen, the pollsters, the hucksters and consultants", who have "devolved our politics to a pretty trivial level" when compared to what he considers were more substantive debates in the past.
But the debates grip the imagination in part because no amount of attention to detail can prevent a candidate's idiosyncrasies from emerging. No consultant could have foreseen that Republican incumbent George H W Bush would be widely criticised for appearing arrogant by looking at his watch during a debate with Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. Mr Clinton was elected.
And preparation also needs delivery. It is no surprise that perhaps the defining presidential debate performance came from a trained actor.
In 1984, the 73-year-old presidential incumbent Ronald Reagan knew his younger Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, 56, would try to make his age an issue. Well prepared when the question came, Reagan fired straight back. He would not, he said, "exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience".
The delivery was so good, even Mr Mondale laughed. Reagan won, as polls had suggested he would, by a landslide.