What Will Wednesday Look Like?
Anticipating the first night out.

The debate stage rises in Denver.


Wednesday night marks the first presidential debate of the 2012 general election. We asked some veteran election watchers what they’re hoping to see happen.


I am hoping to see Romney make a clean, economic argument about why Obama has failed and why Romney’s policies will succeed, with data to back him up.

— James C. Capretta is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

I am hoping to see Mitt Romney indict President Obama for his role in the lousy economy. Romney should not be afraid to say that, when the president and Bill Clinton claim nobody could have repaired our economy in the last four years, they are not being candid with the American people. American history is all about men who rose to the occasion in dark times. Romney also has to make the point that, knowing how business works, he can do what was undoable for Obama. I would like to see Romney politely get under the president’s skin. Romney can do this without being rude because our president, from his days with Toots and Gramps to being cosseted by an adoring media, is not used to being challenged. President Obama is not cute when he is mad, and I am hoping Romney will make him as mad as he made Newt. One other thing: It would be risky, but I’d like to see Romney hang the celebrity label around the president’s neck. Let’s face it, this is a man more suited to hobnobbing with the red-carpet set than to being leader of the free world: “I’m not a celebrity, Mr. President. I may never be invited to party with Beyoncé and Jay-Z. I’m not eye candy to anybody but Ann. But here is something I can promise the American people: When our people are in trouble around the world, I am going to be in the White House and wide awake.”

— Charlotte Hays is director of cultural programs at the Independent Women’s Forum.

Four years after the financial crisis defined the last election, debate moderator Jim Lehrer should ask both candidates whether America now has the free-market, no-bailouts financial system that it deserves, and, if not, why not. Below are a few sample questions taken from my paper on this topic:

Sample question for President Obama: If the Dodd-Frank law fixed Wall Street, how would you explain that just this May, 52 percent of potential voters told pollsters that they had little or no confidence in the financial industry — not much different from the 55 percent who had so little faith in the industry in the weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed?

Sample question for Governor Romney: In your convention speech, you implied that it’s President Obama’s fault that “you’d have to take a big loss on your house” if you sold it. Don’t you think the housing market had to fall significantly from bubble levels in recent years, no matter who was president? If not, what would you have done to prevent that from happening?

Sample question for either candidate:

You’ve both employed top officials tied to the financial industry. Mr. President, your former chief of staff, Bill Daley, was previously a top executive at JPMorgan Chase. Governor Romney, your campaign co-chairman, Tim Pawlenty, just left for the biggest lobbying job on Wall Street, a post that will pay millions of dollars. Does Wall Street have too much clout in Washington? Why do you think Wall Street donors have favored one of you (Mr. Romney) over the other in this election?

— Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Bold specifics. Our nation faces massive problems — such as $16 trillion in debt, anemic job growth, and looming defense cuts. How would the candidates truly tackle these problems? The president needs to explain how he would get us out of this mess, and Governor Romney should outline how his policies would reverse course. Platitudes like “raising taxes on the rich” that don’t even address our debt are not serious proposals. Where’s the beef? We want specifics.

— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard and has served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.

Mitt Romney should tell the country that we are tipping into a wholly avoidable recession that will condemn an entire generation of young people to second-class careers and ruin the retirements of millions if it isn’t avoided. He also needs to make clear that the chaos that is engulfing our Middle East policy can be sorted out with strong leadership and American resolve. I expect the president to fall into his poker tells.

— Hugh Hewitt is author of The Brief Against Obama: The Rise, Fall & Epic Fail of the Hope & Change Presidency.

1. Romney compelling the president to take ownership of his record instead of his continued finger-pointing.

2. Romney with a tight, high-level message on the importance of growth as the fundamental in all our problems.

3. Romney avoiding the weeds.

4. Romney smiling at the personal attacks and forcing a rebuttal on the issues.

— Douglas Holtz-Eakin is president of the American Action Forum.

I’m hoping to see signs of a strategy, any strategy besides “Obama’s a nice guy in over his head.” Romney will need to be positive: “Here’s how I’ll jump-start the economy and cut away at the debt.” Yet a polite but firm critique of the president’s record is also a must. Romney needs to tie the state of the economy to Obama’s big-government policies. That was the secret of the Tea Party’s success in 2010. The media won’t tell undecided voters that Obama’s heavy-handed regulations are killing the economy, so Romney’s got to do it himself. In the absence of that, Romney’s “nice guy in over his head” narrative can be parried by “nice guy doing his best with an economy too tough for anyone to fix.”

Romney needs to hit his new themes so hard that no one coming out of the first debate will be confused about what his strategy is. He needs to force the national debate out of terms set by the media and the Obama campaign and onto his own ground instead. If this works the way it’s supposed to, the shift should be easy to notice.

Many conservatives have been offering Romney advice on big-picture strategic moves. I have my favorites, but what I really want is for Romney to aggressively get behind any of his many possible options. He needs to go on offense and shape the narrative coming out of the debates.

That’s what I’m hoping for, but I’m not sure what to expect. Romney may keep playing it safe, with all of safety’s attendant dangers, or he may break out big-time with an obvious new campaign theme. We’ll know soon enough.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.