The stakes are high for Mitt Romney in Wednesday's US presidential debate, as the Republican challenger cannot afford a mediocre performance in a race where he lags behind nationally by nearly four points, analysts say.
"This is the biggest moment of his political life," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
Indeed, 50 million viewers are expected to watch the debate, but many may not tune into the second installment if Romney fails to make a strong showing on Wednesday, and the contender needs to keep audiences tuned into the entire series.
Adding even more pressure is that, according to a Fox Business report released Tuesday, big donors are beginning to divert their cash to GOP House and Senate candidates and away from Romney. A good performance in the debate may reverse the trend and a poor or so-so performance may cause Romney's river of cash to dry up, analysts said.
A break from the past and a vision for the future
To be successful, Romney must convince voters of what he believes is President Barack Obama's failure to steer the economy in the right direction, O'Connell said, as the economy is undergoing a sluggish recovery from one of the worst recessions in decades.
At the same time, he must show he has a vision for the future, analysts say.
Romney must also overcome the perception created by Obama's ads that he only cares about the wealthy and doesn't have policies that address fairness.
He will gain points just by being on the same stage as the president, but he has to present a more compelling argument than he has to date, said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Finally, Romney must ooze confidence, a trait that often trumps knowledge of policy in presidential debates.
However, Obama comes across as more confident because he has spent four years dealing with foreign and domestic problems and is the front runner for reelection. He is articulate and understands that today's fight is about the middle class. Polls demonstrate that more voters trust him to protect people like themselves, West said.
In spite of the weak economy, Obama remains popular and has been slightly better in messaging, experts contended.
If Romney does well, he might see a small bump in the polls. If he can break through perceptions that he is out of touch with the American middle class, he could begin to turn the election. But that is a steep challenge, given that his polling numbers continue to look worse and worse among independents, women, and other swing-voting blocs, said Dan Mahaffee, an analyst with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
Debates and history
In a New York Times article published on Sunday, political writer John Harwood wrote that only twice in history have debates shifted the election's outcome.
The first was in a 1960 television debate between then Senator John F. Kennedy and then Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon refused to wear makeup onstage, and looked haggard, while Kennedy displayed a cool demeanor. Gallup polls moved from being even to moving Kennedy ahead by four points, Harwood noted.
In 2000, then Vice President Al Gore, a Democratic candidate, made a few minor factual misstatements and appeared at times condescending and impatient during his debate with his Republican rival George W. Bush, Harwood noted. Gore later narrowly lost the election.