Students of presidential politics say it is rare for debates to make or break campaigns for the White House, but Wednesday night will see that theory put to the test when the candidates face off at the University of Denver.
This is an unusual year in which the debates may carry unusual significance. Polls indicate that President Barack Obama has an edge over his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. That confounds the conventional wisdom, which holds that it is the incumbent who struggles in a sour economy.
With veteran TV commentator Jim Lehrer moderating, the debate will consist of six 15-minute segments -- three devoted to the economy and one each on health care, the role of government and governing.
Everybody has questions that they would like to have asked -- and this newspaper is no exception. We hope the candidates will take some unscripted departures from familiar talking points and provide detail and specificity in their answers.
It's right that the first debate should focus on the economy, the issue of the hour. For Mr. Obama, the question is: Is this anemic economic recovery all there is? What else can you do to revive the nation's fortunes beyond urging patience on the American people?
For Mr. Romney, the question is: If you had been in charge, what would you have done differently the past four years? And how much worse would unemployment be if there had been no federal stimulus money to keep people on the job or if the auto industry had been left to go bankrupt, as you said should have been done?
Mr. Obama, are you really serious about cutting the deficit when to do so would require cutting social programs that Democrats like? Mr. Romney, how can you argue that the deficit will go away when the experts agree it will take both spending cuts and higher taxes to do the job, and your party is sworn not to do the latter?
For both candidates, which is more important at this moment, adding jobs or reducing red ink? Do you believe that cutting the deficit too quickly could stop the recovery dead in its tracks, as some economists warn?
Mr. Obama, where do the extra doctors come from to handle the millions of new patients that will come into the system under your national health care law? Mr. Romney, what will you do to replace Obamacare on day one after your promised repeal? And why is it wrong to insist on personal responsibility, which is the essence of the individual mandate to buy health insurance?
Many other questions suggest themselves -- and on the answers this election may turn.