Let's establish one important fact from the top – the upcoming presidential debate will matter. Why?
Well, for three reasons.
First, because this will be the most watched event of this election, and that creates the opportunity for some pretty dramatic outcomes. Second, because this is a volatile race and there are enough undecided and soft leaners (people who lean towards one candidate but could be persuaded to change their minds) to move battleground state polls quite dramatically over the next 30 or so days. And third, because presidential debates are as close as we come to "Thunderdome" politics –- two go in, but only one comes out.
Make no mistake about it: come Thursday morning, there will be a winner. If Romney wins, he will change the narrative of this election and give his flagging campaign some much-needed energy. If Obama wins, he has all but sealed up his re-election. If it is a draw, Obama wins because with so little time remaining Romney needed to do more than draw even.
So with all that being said, here are the five things debate watchers should look for during the October 3 presidential debate.
1. The Unavoidable Tough Question.
Usually, the tough questions are pretty obvious, but sometimes they are so unexpected or brutal that they can truly shake a candidate. If you want to know what that feels like for the candidates, just imagine that awful feeling you get in your stomach when you almost get in a car accident. Now imagine that with tens of millions of people watching. Not so good, right?
What does that all mean for Wednesday night? Well, it depends on whether the question each candidates loathes answering gets asked.
For example, if Romney gets asked what loopholes he would close or how his budget math adds up when everyone says it doesn't, he'd better have an answer; saying he wants to wait until after the election to get specific will be a disaster. If Obama gets asked directly what entitlements changes he would propose or why some of his economic proposals haven't worked, he will have to answer with specifics, avoid excuses, and avoid sounding defensive. Whatever the questions may be, there is one (sometimes more than one) that if you watch closely enough you'll realize was the stomach-turning question.
How each candidate responds at that moment will tell a lot about who wins or loses this debate and the election.
2. Seize-the-Debate Moments
Debates are not about answering policy questions -- any candidate can do that (well, almost any, sans Rick Perry). They are about creating and defining moments that capture voters' attentions and help define you, your opponent, as well as the entire election.
We're not talking about zingers, either. Most zingers are flimsy, ill-timed and poorly delivered. What we're talking about is when a candidate gives an answer or response that creates an "aha" moment in voters' minds. Ronald Reagan did that with his now-infamous question, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" But it wasn't the question that defined the moment; it was how he answered -– his words, his tone, his emotion, and his brutal directness that helped shake a fairly close race into an election blowout. It was a moment that not only grabbed voters' attention, it helped crystallize what a lot of voters already believed about President Carter –- and it was devastating.
In some cases, it can be a negative moment, such as when a candidate makes a major gaffe, or fails to show any compassion or emotion when asked about a terrible crisis or a horrific event (example A, Gov. Dukakis in 1988). These negative moments can define a debate as much as positive ones. These are the landmines all candidates pray they don't step on.
For Gov. Romney to have a real chance for a dramatic election turnaround, he needs one of these defining moments, and it needs to be a positive one. As for President Obama, he needs to do everything possible to avoid a negative moment that would in any way turn those soft leaners or undecided voters against him. So be sure to watch for this above all else.
3. The Beginning and the End
Listen to what the candidate says in his first and last answers. Those few minutes at the top and the end matter -– a lot!
Our advice to candidates is to use their first response to frame the entire debate. Whatever you get asked, use that first question -- when your opponent is nervous, everyone is watching, and the media is thinking about what the story line should be -- to define this debate and rock your opponent.
The smart candidate will use that first answer to box in his opponent and put him on the defensive. He will say something that will not only exploit his opponent's weaknesses, but minimize his own. He needs do it forcefully, but nicely. By the way, there is nothing more damaging to your opponent than getting punched in the gut in the first five minutes. A lesson to keep in mind: If you can undermine your opponent at the very top of a debate, it will shake him from beginning to end.
As for the last answer, smart candidates use this to make the final sell. A great closing statement becomes the exclamation mark to a debate performance. It needs to be a straight-to-camera, connect-with-the-voter sermon. It needs to reflect the voter's reality, not the candidate's. It needs to convey emotion and strength. Above all, it needs to be the moment where the candidate puts down the hammer on what the fundamental choice of this election is or should be. If done well, it can be powerful and memorable.
So be sure to watch and listen carefully to what President Obama and Gov. Romney say in the opening few minutes of the debate. Will they just answer the question, or will they seize the moment to define this debate from start?
4. Romney vs. Obama
So who is the better debater? People will differ, but Gov. Romney is a very good debater and a better one than President Obama. Romney's flaw -– and it's a big one -- is that he has a real tendency to blow himself up with terrible gaffes. President Obama is an average debater who tends to filibuster answers, meanders, but never makes a real gaffe. He's cool and safe. Both of these candidates can also get very defensive when pushed – not a great quality to highlight in a debate, by the way.
To that end, expect both candidates to come out aggressive. Gov. Romney will try and attack President Obama for not taking enough responsibility and making too many excuses about his record. He will try and make Obama own his record and his words. For Obama, it will be about hammering Romney's view on the 47% of Americans he described as victims and then painting him as a politician without a core. He will try and force Romney to contradict himself and be defensive.
5. Winning Voters' Hearts
One of the hardest things to do in politics is to communicate emotion and empathy through a TV camera. It's even harder in a debate.
Some candidates are naturals, like Bill Clinton, and some are not (ahem, Al Gore). But a candidate needs to win hearts, not just minds. A winning debater needs to convey that emotion at the right time and in the right way. It needs to be genuine and sincere. Some try and fake it, but voters know when it's real.
This may be Gov. Romney's biggest hurdle. President Obama is likeable and people see him as someone who understands their problems. He is crushing Romney on these intangible qualities that matter more than one's policy specifics in today's 24/7 media climate.
Unfortunately for Romney, his words and his campaign have painted a brutal picture of someone cold and indifferent to the real suffering of others. Romney will have ninety minutes to disabuse people of that image and paint a new empathetic one. On this front, President Obama has the clear advantage, but he will have to avoid at all costs saying anything that would make people question his likeability.
So watch and ask yourself this question at the end of the debate -- do I truly like Romney more now than I did before?
Chris Kofinis is a Democratic strategist. Frank Luntz is a Republican pollster and strategist. AOL has an elections content partnership with Chris Kofinis and Luntz Global.