Why tonight's debate could be so crucial

/ Source: NBC News

Why tonight’s debate could be so crucial: After a slew of new NBC/WSJ polls released over the past 12 hours, here’s where the presidential contest stands right before tonight’s first debate: President Obama holds a narrow and tightening national lead over Mitt Romney among likely voters, 49%-46%.

It’s also narrow and tight in the battleground states of Florida (where it’s Obama 47 percent, Romney 46 percent) and Virginia (Obama 48 percent, Romney 46 percent). But in the battleground of Ohio, the president enjoys a substantial advantage, 51 percent- 43 percent. So Romney is both so close and yet so far away.

It’s extremely difficult -- though not impossible -- for Romney to get to 270 electoral votes without Ohio. It’s also difficult for Romney to win the presidency when he trails Obama by a 48 percent - 35 percent margin in the national NBC/WSJ poll on which candidate is better prepared to lead to the country for the next four years, as well when the “47 percent” comment has taken such a toll on him. And that’s why tonight’s debate could be so crucial to the presidential contest.

It very well could be Romney’s last chance to change the trajectory of the race. And it gives Obama, whose 49 percent approval rating is at re-elect level, the opportunity to shut off his opponent’s last path to victory.

Why the NBC/WSJ poll is mostly good news for Obama: In fact, the best news for Romney in the national NBC/WSJ poll is his likely-voter number. But the rest is good news for Obama.

According to the survey, 44 percent believe that the economy will improve in the next 12 months -- that’s up two points from the last NBC/WSJ survey, eight points since August and a whopping 17 points since July. What’s more, 57 percent  think that the U.S. economy is recovering, versus 39 percent  who disagree with that notion.

And four in 10 now say the country is headed in the right direction, which is the highest percentage on this question since June 2009. Given the increased economic optimism, Obama and Romney are nearly tied on which candidate would better handle the economy, with 45 percent  picking Romney and 42 percent  choosing Obama. But the president leads Romney on almost all other issues and character traits -- looking out for the middle class, handing the situation in the Middle East, handling immigration, dealing with Medicare, being a good commander in chief, handling foreign policy, and dealing with taxes.

Romney, meanwhile, holds the edge on dealing with the federal budget deficit and dealing with the economic challenges that the U.S. faces from China. All of these numbers explain why Obama’s three-point lead looks so commanding.

Tonight’s debate format: Here’s the format for tonight’s 90-minute debate from Denver, CO that begins at 9:00 pm ET: “There will be no rigid time limits, buzzers or cheering that often threatened to turn the Republican primary debates into a recurring political game show.

The debate will be divided into six segments of 15 minutes, with ample opportunity for robust exchanges and a level of specificity that both sides have often sought to avoid,” the New York Times writes. Both Obama and Romney will stand at podiums.

Obama gets the first question, and Romney gets to speak last in the closing remarks. And while there are no rigid time limits during each segment, each candidate gets two minutes to answer the opening question; the rest is free-flowing.