WASHINGTON — Not since Rocky Balboa met Apollo Creed have so many greeted a matchup with as much anticipation as tonight’s debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Not even Honey Boo Boo can beat out these two in the ratings. (We pray, really, we do.)
Presidential debates have rarely held us in such thrall, but this one is especially riveting because, despite the fact that this election has been in progress for about four years, voters expect to learn something they don’t already know about the candidates.
Can Romney get under Obama’s skin? Can Obama force Romney to be ... Romneyzoid?
Obama comes to the ring with this understanding: He is likable but can be aloof; he is cool but perhaps too cool for school. He is intelligent but strangely unknowing about the ways most Americans view their country. His recent “bumps in the road” comment after the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and his oddly submissive address to the United Nations thereafter come to mind.
And though he enters the fray with a quiver of negatives, including an unemployment rate that still hovers over 8 percent, he is nonetheless popular and, at this stage, leading Romney in battleground states.
Voters should know all they need to know about Obama — including the possibility that he isn’t the leader that a majority hoped he would be — yet there’s still a chance he may reveal something that tips the scale toward Romney. Will he gaze down his nose at Romney the way he did Hillary Clinton? We want to see.
Romney enters the ring with a tattered campaign dragging behind him like tin cans on a rusted-out honeymoon coupe. His once-sterling reputation has been tarnished by the perception that he is awkward and callous.
His party has managed to alienate women in such droves that it may be impossible to woo them back. In Ohio, 60 percent of likely female voters favor Obama over Romney (35 percent), according to a recent poll. In Virginia and Pennsylvania, Obama leads Romney among women voters by 19 and 21 points, respectively.
Meanwhile, Romney’s dismissal of 47 percent of voters essentially as shiftless mooches has stuck to him like Styrofoam peanuts on a cheap suit. Add to those voters African-Americans and Latinos and his competitive standing in the overall polls is nothing short of miraculous.
And yet. There is a sense that there is something more.
Romney has managed throughout 36 primary debates and about six years of campaigning to elude being known by those whose hearts and minds he seeks to convert. Family and friends — and staffers who are deeply loyal and steadfast — seem to know a different Romney than the public persona.
There’s no denying that the media have emphasized Romney’s awkwardness because it is strangely amusing. And because, as Obama joked at his first White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, most journalists voted for him. The media know and like Obama, and he flatters them with the sort of bonhomie that Romney seems incapable of expressing.
The conventional wisdom is that Romney has to slay his opponent or the election is really, really over this time for sure. Even a slight bounce for Obama is viewed as certain victory in five weeks. By contrast, according to this same wisdom, a Romney victory only guarantees he’s in the game until the next debate.
The truth is, no one really knows. Reading voters is like reading Tarot cards. The current debate about polling integrity and turnout models suggests that what we think we know can change quicker than it takes a voter to fib to a pollster.
History tells us that debates, especially the first one, help the challenger. Life tells us that an honest man with a sense of humor can win all hearts. One can do worse in a debate than be remembered for saying, “There you go again.”
Romney’s job tonight isn’t to beat Obama. It is to win over America. You could sell tickets.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.