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Presidential debate: Which questions might trip up Obama, Romney?

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“In answering, it’s not simply that he says the right things about the middle class, but that he appears genuine,” says Zelizer. “Romney has to display a kind of humanity that’s often missing.”

And economic questions could put President Obama in a tricky position too – particularly if Mr. Lehrer presses him on why, despite his policies and the stimulus, the economy is still in as bad shape as it is.

Mr. Obama’s transition team forecast that the stimulus would keep unemployment from going above 8 percent, and instead it hasn’t gone below 8 percent, notes Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

“If they haven’t anticipated that question, then [the debate prep team] is pretty hopeless,” he adds.

In Romney’s case, says Professor Pitney, they should also be anticipating some question on the 47 percent issue that explores where those policies came from: “Ronald Reagan made a big point of taking lower-income Americans off the income-tax rolls,” for instance. “Why do you think Reagan was wrong?”

And both candidates might be pushed beyond where they’re comfortable going on economic specifics: what programs they’d cut to reduce the deficit and, in Romney’s case, what exactly he’d do differently from Obama to make the economy improve.

Health care is certainly going to come up, and is a somewhat difficult topic, complete with a lot of potential pitfalls, for both candidates.

“Obama will have to talk about health care, why this is a good bill, and why it was more important than focusing on the economy or focusing on continued stimulus,” says Zelizer.

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