JUDY WOODRUFF: In just a few hours, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will take the stage at the University of Denver's Magness Arena for the first of three election debates.
Tonight's encounter, moderated by the "NewsHour"'s own Jim Lehrer, is to focus on domestic policy. The first half of the 90-minute face-off will be spent on the number one issue for most voters this year: the economy.
Joining us for the debate later and here with us now to preview what to expect tonight, two familiar faces, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
The night is finally here. Mark, no pressure, just 60 million people will be watching. What are you looking for from tonight's encounter?
MARK SHIELDS: What I'm looking for, Judy, is that the -- the candidate who understands of the two that the most important thing is not making a mistake, but really making a point as to what his presidency would be about.
And I think that's -- I think both of them are geared, because so much has been -- attention has been directed to gaffes in the past that have affected or influenced, shaped the outcome, or that impression. But it's a magic moment, because, with no pundits, no prism of editorial columnists, of anybody else, 60 million individuals sit down and, in a comparative situation, they make their own assessment.
And it's just -- I think it's a marvelous public exercise.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A magic moment, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, we will see. It is the biggest night of the election. That's doesn't mean it's dispositive.
Usually, the debates have some effect. They almost never really change the dynamic of the race, but it is the single biggest night. And I guess I am watching Mitt Romney more. Barack Obama's great skill is that he doesn't commit turnovers, with maybe the one exception, "You're likable enough, Hillary."
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
DAVID BROOKS: That was the one moment where he probably said something foolish, but generally he runs -- he doesn't commit a turnover. He's not very daring, but doesn't make mistakes.
Romney's much more interesting, A., because he's behind. But he has got to give a one-sentence answer: Barack Obama has been to be replaced because, and fill in that because, very clear.
The second thing that is interesting about Romney, he's so insistently aggressive at debates. The moment I was reminded of by a Jim Fallows piece in "The Atlantic" was -- they were talking about gun control in a debate against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts when they were competing for the Senate seat.
Kennedy says, I know about guns, referring to his family's tragedies. Most candidates would withdraw and not go there. Romney went there and he said, you always fall back on that. That's not going to work here.
That's a pretty aggressive debater.
MARK SHIELDS: That's when he was for gun control, before he was a lifetime member of the NRA.
DAVID BROOKS: That's true. That's true.
MARK SHIELDS: So I will be watching.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what do you see Governor Romney has to accomplish tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: He has to come out of it -- he has got to forget likability. He is never going to compete on likability. And the only...
JUDY WOODRUFF: You say forget likability?
MARK SHIELDS: Forget likability in the sense of trying to be as likable as the president. He's not going to do that. That is not his forte.
And his only hope on likability is that the president, who, according to all evidence and all testimony, has minimum high regard for Mitt Romney, lets that show in the debate. He had respect -- the president had great respect for John McCain. He didn't think he should be president, but he had great respect.
He doesn't feel that way toward Mitt Romney. He has to get that. Mitt Romney ought to go in it with a little bit of confidence, Judy, because of the fact that he's had a terrible two weeks. By a 2-1 margin in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, people feel the information they have gotten over the last two weeks make them less favorable toward him, and yet he's closed the gap.
And I think he ought to go in and he has got to have a sense that this race is winnable, but he's got to come out with two things. One is that now I know that he understands what we are going through. His manifest acts of kindness to fellow his parishioners who have lost their jobs, which we heard about at the convention, which were really admirable, there is no sense that that goes beyond to a continental or a national sense.
And the second thing that has to come away is, now I understand what he wants to do about the economy. These are the three things. And they make sense. I understand it, that the three things he's proposing make sense.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney?
MARK SHIELDS: That's what Romney has to do.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if that's what Romney needs to do, David, what about the president? And is there as much pressure on the president tonight as there is on Governor Romney?
DAVID BROOKS: No, he's ahead. But Mark is right. It's closed. It's closed from a week ago. Maybe there's a four-point national gap. It's closed to maybe a 2.5-point gap.
And even in some of the swing states, we have seen a tightening in the polls. And that suggests -- not because Romney has done anything special in the last week or two, but the underlying dynamic of the race is still the underlying dynamic, that the country is still heading in the wrong direction. There's still a desire to change. There's still a desire to replace the president.
And so I guess for him I would go back to the single most impressive speech of the year, which was Bill Clinton's speech, which was also the wonkiest speech of the year. And I really wouldn't shy away from being wonky, not that everybody is going to follow every Medicare reform plan you have, or economic policy you have. They want to be treated like adults.
And so if the president gives us a bit of a hint of an agenda, that would be a breakthrough.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.
MARK SHIELDS: Could I just dissent a little from David?
We now have the highest right direction number we have had since June of '09. So, there is a growing sense of confidence, a sense...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Direction of the country.
DAVID BROOKS: It's not close to positive.
MARK SHIELDS: No, I agree. But it's an improvement. It's a graph.
The people who think the economy is getting better has increased by 17 points since July. I mean, there's really a sense that -- the president has to confirm to them that he -- A., his policies have made a difference in this improvement, that they are right in sensing the improvement, and that he can take it from here.
He has a big advantage. And that is, when asked who is better prepared to lead the nation over the next four years, by a 13-point margin, 49-36, people say the president -- 35 -- percent say the president over Mitt Romney. Even people who are voting for Mitt Romney don't think he's better prepared to do so. That's what the president has to accomplish, I think.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, finally, and just quickly, you touched on this earlier. There is this conversation out there that, well, debates don't really -- I think you said they're not always dispositive.
So, is it possible this debate might not matter?
DAVID BROOKS: It's certainly possible.
The candidate who has gone in with the lead in the polls pre-debate has won the election almost every time. So -- but that doesn't mean they don't change the votes.
DAVID BROOKS: And so -- but this is a closer race than most campaigns. And so if it's a 2.5- or a 2.8-point race, then you could certainly see a movement of two points, making it feel like a tie, at least.
MARK SHIELDS: No, I think it is important, Judy.
The people who are undecided and the president -- see, the president has a number of discrete constituencies, Latinos, working women, college-educated women, to whom he has spoken and has spoken very effectively. The thing about a national debate is, and for Mitt Romney as well, his 47 percent remarks, you're speaking to everybody at the same time.
And there's no demographic cliques or subgroups. It's everybody. So, that's why this -- I think debates are so important.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we're popping the popcorn. We're on the edge of our seats.
MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.