The arrival of the first debate means one thing: the end of the debate expectations game. It's not a game so much as a chore. When aides to presidential candidates are forced to downplay their boss' debating skills, it's an embarrassment for everyone concerned: the candidate being dressed in short pants and the press corps who has to treat the game like it's news. It's particularly sad for the campaign official who plays this charade knowing that the moment the debate ends he will switch immediately to boasting about his boss' superhuman performance. When the candidates themselves engage in the expectations-management game, as they both have, it does not instill confidence.
The expectations game is a sham, which is too bad because the debates are already pretty full of nonsense. The answers are typically thin and after they are traded, aides from both parties engage in a furious round of spinning not connected to reality. Nominally the exercise is related to the debate that just transpired, but the script is already written. After each debate, the campaigns will be making the same arguments that they have been making for months. It's just up to the candidates to produce material during the 90 minutes that helps their handlers make the case. For Mitt Romney, the task is to present his policies in a way that is appealing and specific enough that voters can imagine their lives getting better. President Obama has to reiterate the message that he has been offering for months: He's working hard and the recovery, while slow, will pick up as long as the country doesn't flirt with embracing the GOP again.
In a perfect performance, the candidate will say something in sync with his larger campaign's themes that is also clever and otherwise repeatable. Such a line will dominate the airwaves, and echo across Twitter and Facebook. For the next day or so it will get passed around by parents picking up their kids at karate practice or mentioned by the office mensch during a pause in the break room. The linkage between performance and message is key. While one candidate's clever line may get repeated, if it doesn't serve the larger campaign message, then it's just entertainment.
Here's where the political situation stands going into the first debate. The Realclearpolitics national average of polls show Obama with a 3.2 point lead over Romney. The average of polls in some battleground states shows the president with a slightly larger lead. (5.5 in Ohio; 5.2 in Nevada) Romney has been on the defensive for the last few weeks. Not only has he been battling to regain his message from his spotty response to the Libya attacks and the release of a secretly recorded video in which he disparaged Obama voters, but he's also battling to figure out what his message is. Is he going to focus just on the economy? Or does he have an opening on foreign policy issues? Monday night in Denver he was in many places at once, talking about all of those things, plus union ballots and Solyndra.