First presidential debate starts election countdown

There's a lot riding on tonight's debate between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.

Obama needs to re-energize his supporters; Romney needs to come across as a guy you can like.

If the polls that are being conducted are accurate, Obama is the favorite to win Nov. 6 despite high unemployment and an economy that can't seem to get enough traction to get over the hump. He is still popular with his base, but he's also running with a record of performance in the White House that hasn't lived up to the lofty expectations that many had when he ran in 2008. As a result, the energy level isn't as high, and projections that the race is his to lose do little to motivate those who are more casual in their support.

Romney has run into a likability problem, having been successfully painted as wealthy and aloof, and that has combined with September campaign missteps that have been hard for him to shake. If he's playing catch-up as the polls are indicating, his two debates with Obama are critical if he's going to project the image of a likable guy who is ready for the job and who has the ability to lead the nation into better economic times.

The fact is, less than half the people who go to the polls are going to watch tonight's debate. In 2008, when interest in Obama's candidacy was particularly high, about 63 million people saw Obama and Republican nominee Sen. John McCain debate -- 7 million fewer than the number who watched then-Sen. Joe Biden, Obama's vice president, debate former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate. That 63 million was 48 percent of the 131.3 million who voted for president in the 2008 general election.

What will matter more -- and this is a sad statement -- is what "experts" tell people happened at the debate, which no doubt will be supported by audio-visual snippets from the event. In our McSociety of instant service, far too many rely on others with whom they feel an ideological connection making up their minds for them.

The job of chief executive officer of the United States government is a big job, the biggest in the world. It is a complex job that can't be explained in sound bites and the high-hatted opinions of talking heads.

For two large segments of the U.S. voting population, none of this matters. They have already decided who they will vote for -- and against -- on Nov. 6, and facts won't get in the way of their decisions. It's easier to decide based on Obama's campaign flag or Romney's 47 percent remark.

But a smaller percentage of the U.S. voters -- the coveted segment known as swing voters -- is a different matter. Campaign strategists work for one of two things to happen with those in this group: either persuade them to get in line behind the campaign's candidate or disgust them so much that they stay home. Many of those swing voters, we believe, have been trying to avoid the political cannibalism of the past year but realize that time is drawing to a close and that decisions have to be made. It's time to pay close attention and to make informed choices.

They are the difference makers, and they -- not the pundits, the satirists, the propagandists or the pollsters -- will determine America's path for the next four years.