WASHINGTON -- Not since Rocky Balboa met Apollo Creed have so many greeted a matchup with as much anticipation as Wednesday night's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Not even Honey Boo Boo can beat out these two in the ratings. (We pray, really, we do.)
Presidential debates have rarely held us in such thrall, but this one is especially riveting because, despite the fact that this election has been in progress for about four years, voters expect to learn something they don't already know about the candidates.
Can Romney get under Obama's skin? Can Obama force Romney to be ... Romneyzoid?
Obama comes to the ring with this understanding: He is likable but can be aloof; he is cool but perhaps too cool for school. He is intelligent but strangely unknowing about the ways most Americans view their country. His recent "bumps in the road" comment after the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and his oddly submissive address to the United Nations thereafter come to mind.
And though he enters the fray with a quiver of negatives, including an unemployment rate that still hovers over 8 percent, he is nonetheless popular and, at this stage, leading Romney in battleground states.
Voters should know all they need to know about Obama -- including the possibility that he isn't the leader that a majority hoped he would be -- yet there's still a chance he may reveal something that tips the scale toward Romney. Will he gaze down his nose at Romney the way he did Hillary Clinton? We want to see.
Romney enters the ring with a tattered campaign dragging behind him like tin cans on a rusted-out honeymoon coupe. His once-sterling reputation has been tarnished by the perception that he is awkward and callous.
His party has managed to alienate women in such droves that it may be impossible to woo them back. In Ohio, 60 percent of likely female voters favor Obama over Romney (35 percent), according to a recent poll. In Virginia and Pennsylvania, Obama leads Romney among women voters by 19 and 21 points, respectively.
Meanwhile, Romney's dismissal of 47 percent of voters essentially as shiftless mooches has stuck to him like Styrofoam peanuts on a cheap suit. Add to those voters African-Americans and Latinos and his competitive standing in the overall polls is nothing short of miraculous.