DENVER -- President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney -- who has struggled to find momentum -- will offer voters starkly different prescriptions for fixing the ailing economy as they duel tonight in their first and perhaps most critical debate.
More than 60 million people are expected to watch when the nationally televised 90-minute debate kicks off at 6 p.m. Pacific time, far more than watched the two major party national conventions and dwarfing the number that watched Romney in GOP primary debates.
Underscoring the significance, the men will arrive at the University of Denver after days of closed-door rehearsals, Obama in Nevada and Romney in Colorado. The stakes are particularly high for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who's stayed close to Obama in most polls but continues to trail.
"It's one of the few possible game changers left for him, and the only one he has a certain amount of control over," said Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of advertising at Boston University.
Most polls show Obama remains vulnerable -- his Gallup job approval rating Sept. 28-30 was 47 percent, about where it's been for some time, and a Quinnipiac Polling Institute survey released Tuesday, taken Sept. 25-30, put him ahead of Romney 49 percent to 45 percent.
Obama also battles high expectations. Romney has not engaged in a one-on-one political debate since he ran for governor of Massachusetts 10 years ago, while Obama debated Republican John McCain three times in 2008 and is a familiar presence on TV. U.S. residents by a 2-to-1 margin expect Obama to win the debate, according to polls.
The numbers suggest an opportunity for Romney, who will try to tell voters that Obama should be held responsible for a stubbornly sluggish economy. Romney plans to stress that Obama's remedies too often involve "going forward with a stagnant, government-centered economy," said senior adviser Ed Gillespie.
The key economic flashpoints are expected to involve taxes, the federal debt and jobs.
Romney is running ads tying Obama to the government's $16 trillion debt. Obama is pointing out that Romney's plans would mean even more debt. Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, was responsible for a huge chunk of the debt boom. When he took office in 2001, the figure was $5.7 trillion. Because of tax cuts, a new Medicare drug program, war spending and other factors, the debt was $10.6 trillion when he left office eight years later. Both men would add trillions more to the debt in the next decade.
On jobs, Romney is expected to offer frequent reminders that the national jobless rate soared past 8 percent during Obama's first full month in office in February 2009 and has never dropped below that level. That's the longest stretch exceeding 8 percent since such records started 64 years ago. (In Merced County, the jobless rate is 15.9 percent.)
The nation lost about 7.9 million jobs during the December 2007-June 2009 recession -- most of which occurred during the Bush administration -- but the pace of hiring has since lagged behind usual post-recession standards.
Romney maintains that his incentives for business would help create 12 million jobs in four years. Obama is likely to tout his American Jobs Act, which would provide government spending on public works projects as well as business incentives that would help create millions of jobs.
Both are expected to cite changes in the tax system as key to job creation. Romney will urge continuing the Bush-era tax cuts, set to expire at year's end, and further cut those rates 20 percent. Obama wants to continue only the Bush cuts affecting families earning less than $250,000 or individuals making less than $200,000.
Obama and Romney are to debate again Oct. 16 and Oct. 22. Vice President Joe Biden and the Republican nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, meet Oct. 11.