AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. The stage is set in Denver for the first presidential debate tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. The candidates are suiting up, reporters are gathering, live tweeters are sharpening their virtual pencils. And NPR's Mara Liasson is in Denver and she joins us for a preview. Welcome, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So what is the format for tonight's debate?
LIASSON: Tonight's debate will take 90 minutes, no audience participation, no whooping and hollering like in the Republican primaries. They each get two minutes for opening statements. They did toss a coin, so the president will get the first word and Romney gets the last word. There are no time limits after the opening statements. They're going to be six 15-minute segments focused on the economy and health care, the role of government and governing.
Jim Lehr is the moderator, so there will be lots of room for interaction and filibusters.
CORNISH: Of course, both the campaigns are talking up the big stakes up tonight. But what exactly is each candidate going to be trying to accomplish.
LIASSON: Well, Mitt Romney has the bigger task. He has to criticize the president without looking too harsh or negative because his favorability ratings are so much lower than the president. He also has to show how his economic policies can make people's lives better in the future. He has to show that he understands the economic struggles of ordinary people.
He does have an advantage. He comes into this debate as the underdog. Most people expect the president to win tonight and that's a problem for the president. He's rusty. He hasn't debated in a long time. On one level, Mr. Obama's goal is merely to avoid making a mistake, kind of hang onto his lead, but he also has to make sure he doesn't come off as smug or arrogant or dismissive or thin-skinned.
He has to use this debate to close the sale. There aren't a lot of undecided voters out there, but there are enough of them to make a difference in a close race. In the poll that NPR just completed, 82 percent of likely voters said they'd watch tonight, 25 percent of them said the debate could help them determine who to vote for.
CORNISH: And Mara, there are polls showing President Obama with a small lead in most battleground states and at the same time, for Mitt Romney, a lot of the stories out there have been focused on criticism of the GOP convention and then this now infamous video of him talking about 47 percent of Americans. Can tonight's debate really help turn the tide for Mitt Romney?
LIASSON: Well, it can and it has to because he doesn't have a lot of game changing opportunities left. I think the most amazing thing is how stable the race has been. Despite the problems you just listed, Romney's support hasn't collapsed. The president has a small lead, yes, although some polls show the race tightening a bit nationally and in key states like Virginia and Florida, but it stayed very stable.
And the Romney campaign, after a period of grabbing anything they could, a headline, a gaffe or an old video to pummel the president now appears to be trying to put some more policy specifics forward. Yesterday, Romney talked about capping deductions at $17,000 as part of his tax reform plan. He's also trying to move to the center on immigration. He said he would not rescind the president's executive order to deport Dream Act kids.
And they're planning a big foreign policy speech. So tonight can set the stage or all of that for Romney.
CORNISH: And Mara, looking back, I mean, have debates in the past really changed the outcomes of elections?
LIASSON: Well, it's hard to find an example since the Kennedy/Nixon debates where that has happened. They can make a difference and not just the real time debates themselves, but how they're analyzed later and the next day by pundits and late night comedians. The race is so close and so polarized, neither candidate has been able to break away, so little things really do matter. This is going to be a race that's going to be decided by a hair.
So these debates can make a difference.
CORNISH: NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.