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DENVER — The first presidential debate is an occasion for the entire country to take the measure of the men who hope to lead the free world.
Tonight's event will be the first time people can make a direct comparison between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney as they stand face to face.
Most voters already have decided who they'll back, and voters in some states that permit early voting already have begun to cast ballots. Others in key swing states are about to do so, with Collier and Lee counties starting early voting on Saturday, Oct. 27.
For those who have decided, and for all of those still undecided, the series of three presidential debates and one vice presidential forum could help reinforce impressions or help form them.
Here are some questions and answers about this traditional quadrennial sparring contest:
Q. What subject matter or policy areas will tonight's debate cover?
A. The first debate will focus on domestic policy and will be divided into six, 15-minute segments. Moderator Jim Lehrer, executive editor of the PBS NewsHour, announced on Sept. 19 that three of the segments will deal with the economy, one will deal with health care, one with the role of government, and one with governing.
Q. When and where will the first debate be held and where can I see it on television?
A. The debate will be held at the University of Denver from 9 to 10:30 p.m. EDT. It will be broadcast live on C-Span, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and cable news channels CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. (It also will be live-streamed on several news websites and YouTube.)
Q. When did the tradition of holding pre-election presidential debates begin?
A. In 1948, there was a one-hour, mid-May debate between Republican presidential candidates Thomas E. Dewey and Harold E. Stassen held in Portland, Ore., and broadcast on radio. It was limited to a single issue: Outlawing the Communist Party in the United States.
The first televised debate between Democratic and Republican presidential nominees was between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960.
Q. How significant is the first debate?
A. "It depends entirely on what's said and whether one side scores, if not a knockout, then enough blows to count," said University of Virginia Center for Politics director Larry J. Sabato. "The first debate will probably have a very substantial audience, in the tens of millions, but let's remember: some debates have mattered but most debates haven't."
Q. What does Romney need to accomplish in the first debate?
A. "Romney's job is obviously a lot tougher because he's behind," Sabato said. "He's got to do a number of things in the debates that he really should have done during the summer or at the convention, including defining who he is, what he stands for and what he will do, and that's in addition to making the case against President Obama."
Q. What does Obama need to accomplish in the first debate?
A. "Obama has an easier job, but he can't take anything for granted," Sabato said. "He has to make the case for not just his first term but what he'd do in a second, which for most people is a giant question mark."
Q. What does Romney need to avoid doing or saying?
A. "He needs to avoid being too defensive," said Arnold Weiner, of Memphis, Tenn., who was a Republican National Convention delegate in Tampa in August. "I think, like Reagan, he needs to talk about positive, conservative aspects of 'peace through strength' and how free enterprise can help everybody … to win over the college-educated swing voters in the suburbs."
Q. What does Obama need to avoid doing or saying?
A. "Because I'm a peace activist, I think his most — I won't say delicate — but his most vulnerable position is on drones, and the use of drones, and the fact that the war in Afghanistan isn't ending until 2014," said Kelly Jacobs of Hernando. Miss., a delegate to the Democratic National Convention last month in Charlotte, N.C. "That's the area I would give the president the most criticism in and, if Mitt Romney goes there, I hope he has some really good answers."
Q. What gaffes, zingers or questionable assertions are past debates known for?
A. President Gerald Ford told Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and millions watching the debate in 1976 that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."
In 1984, Ronald Reagan, 73, said of his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, 56: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen responded in 1988 to Republican Dan Quayle's comparison of himself with John F. Kennedy, saying: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
Q. When and where will the other debates take place and what issues will they focus on?
A. After Denver, there will be a vice presidential debate Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky. The second presidential debate, with a town hall format on Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., will cover domestic and foreign policy questions submitted by undecided voters selected by the Gallup polling organization. The third debate will be Oct. 22 at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, and will focus on foreign policy.
Contact Scripps Howard News Service Washington correspondent Bartholomew Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org