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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney aren’t expected to agree on much when they square off this evening in a televised presidential debate predicted to draw 50 million viewers.
But many political veterans – including those from Western New York – do concur that voters will prove to be most attentive to one and only one topic: the candidates’ plans for the nation’s sputtering economy.
“All that other stuff ... isn’t good, especially for Romney,” said Stephen A. Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena College poll. “People are upset about the economy of the country and their own personal economic standing.”
The war in Afghanistan, the threat of nuclear weapon development in Iran and the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Libya are expected to be covered in a later debate after tonight’s faceoff from Denver – the first of three.
But former President Bill Clinton’s old campaign axiom from 1992 – “It’s the economy, stupid” – is expected to prove just as important in the presidential contest two decades later.
And with Romney behind in most polls, all eyes are on the Republican nominee.
“Romney has to really zero in on President Obama’s economic record,” said James E. Campbell, distinguished professor of political science at the University at Buffalo.
“He must anticipate the possible justifications or excuses (depending on your side) for the economy not being back on track,” he said. “There just has not been a good enough improvement from the situation he inherited.”
Obama, meanwhile, has to further the theme of Clinton’s address before last month’s Democratic National Convention – that no president can quickly reverse the effects of the Great Recession, Campbell said.
“He has to make the case that how he’s handled what he inherited from the previous administration is the best you can expect,” Campbell said. “And he’ll say that Romney’s alternatives are what got us in this problem in the first place.”
Former Democratic Rep. John J. LaFalce said Romney’s stature automatically rises by standing next to the president of the United States. While Obama has not participated in any formal debates for four years, LaFalce views Romney as brimming with experience from a slew of GOP primary faceoffs.
“The disadvantage is that he sometimes speaks before he thinks,” LaFalce said of Romney. “With Obama, you know he thinks before he speaks. But that can appear ponderous.”
Greenberg, who regularly tracks voter reaction in the Siena Research Institute poll, continues to focus on the swing voters he thinks will decide the election. Both candidates are aiming for the votes of the mostly middle-class people who make up the group.
“Romney has to show the middle-class swing voters that he understands their problems, and he, rather than Obama, is in a position to address them,” he said.
The president must make his own arguments to the same group by pointing to steady progress in the face of overwhelming economic obstacles and a less-than-cooperative Republican House of Representatives, Greenberg said.
“He has to say that things are better than they would have been and give swing voters a reason to say: ‘Yeah, he has better ideas than Romney,’?” he said. “There has to be more than platitudes and blame for the past.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com