With President Obama holding a narrow lead in the polls and looking to close the sale, and challenger Mitt Romney searching for a game-changing big play, the stakes in this year's presidential debates are probably even higher than usual. The initial debate, which will focus on domestic policy, takes place on Wednesday at 9 p.m. (Eastern Time) in Denver, with PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer moderating. From PBS, here's a preview of the debate.
Even before the candidates meet on stage, both campaigns are furiously trying to influence how voters will perceive the debate. (The spin is enough to make you dizzy.) But here are some online resources that can help you be an informed viewer who's able to sift through the rhetoric and get to the substance.
- Filter the stagecraft and spin. A recent study by researchers at Ohio State University found that media coverage powerfully influences what people take away from a presidential debate. Viewers who read or watch stories that focus on who "won" the debate, for example, tend to overlook what the candidates actually said about the issues. Want to steer clear of the fog machines? Reuters correspondent Andy Sullivan offers this useful debate-watcher's guide, including which points the candidates are likely to attack each other on and how seemingly insignificant details such as body language, eye contact and timing can influence public perception of who the winner is.
- Fact-check the candidates. Journalistic arbiters of truth are eager to help you verify claims and ferret out fibs. The Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact website offers dossiers for both Obama and Romney, looking at past statements that they're likely to repeat on Wednesday. PolitiFact also offers a Truth-O-Meter app for iPhone and Android and devices. FactCheckED.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, provides a searchable database of the candidates' statements on various topics, from domestic oil production to health-care costs. The center also provides Speech and Debate Check, which aggregates digging by its own fact-checkers with other sources, including PoliFact, the Associated Press and the Washington Post.
- Participate in the discussion. YouTube, Yahoo and AOL are partnering with the Commission on Presidential Debates to offer "The Voice Of ______" - a live streaming online feed of the debates that allows viewers to engage in conversations with one another during the event. If you have an Xbox game console, there's also Microsoft's Xbox LIVE Election, which will offer not only the debate feed but also on-the-spot surveys and polls, so that you'll be able to see how everyone else is reacting. Be sure to weigh in - again and again - through the debates on the Election 2012 discussion on AARP.org.
- Follow the reaction on social media. On Twitter, search for the hashtags #debate and #presidentialdebate to see what other people, from professional pundits to ordinary folk, think about what's being said. On Facebook, check out the Facebook Live page, which will feature both a live stream of the debate and a post-debate analysis with politicians from both parties, in which viewers will be able to submit questions.
- Watch the debate at your own pace. C-Span, the nonpartisan, nonprofit cable network, is not only live-streaming the debate on its Campaign 2012 website, but will immediately upload the video to its library afterward. Not only can you watch the debate whenever you want, you can also stop and replay portions. CNN's unrestricted access to its TV coverage through its website and iPad and iPhone apps will include an intriguing DVR feature that will enable you to capture clips from the debate and share them via social networks or email. -Patrick J. Kiger
Photos: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images; Carlos Osorio/AP Photo