President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney face off on Wednesday in the first of three presidential debates
While Obama holds a lead in several key battleground states, the race nationally has been locked in a dead heat for months. The debate offers an opportunity for Obama or Romney to gain some momentum and break the logjam.
Here are five things to watch for on Wednesday:
1. Who's presidential?
The first and most important test for the president and Romney in this opening debate is to act like they belong in the job.
We've heard a lot of bickering on the campaign trail, and there's plenty of talk that zingers could decide who wins or loses the showdown in Denver. But to most Americans, this debate is really about which candidate has the composure and stature to serve in the Oval Office.
"If either the president or Romney can't pass this test, the rest really don't matter. Big ideas from a small person won't make you president of the United States," says Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos. "When the moment comes, this is like proposing to your wife. This is a big moment."
Thanks to already serving nearly four years in the White House, Obama starts with the advantage, but he can't afford to play it safe at the debate.
"Playing it safe allows Romney to dominate the agenda and put Obama on defense. Either you're on offense or defense, and defense loses," adds Castellanos, who was a senior adviser to Romney in 2008 election.
By comparison, Romney has to do double duty: Stay on offense but also look presidential.