AUSTIN -- Broadcast live on every major news network in America, the presidential debates are the one series that every four years is guaranteed to deliver viewers.
"It's definitely a spectator sport," New York resident Josh Lustbader told KVUE Monday near the State Capitol. "It's like a football game, I guess, for politics!"
The first matchup between the Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is already drawing heavy pre-game buzz. The debate scheduled for 8:00 p.m. CST will be hosted at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, and will focus on domestic policy.
"I hope to see that they have intelligent and thoughtful responses and that their policies are executable when they're in office," said University of Texas student Leigh Anne Alford, who told KVUE she plans to watch the debate moderated PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer.
"This is the only time that you have the two candidates, both there, unfiltered, talking to the American public," said author and University of Texas politics professor Sean Theriault, who warns a general election debate between opposing political parties will take on quite a bit different character than the primary debates earlier this year.
"We've seen about 25 different Republican debates this past season, and there they were splitting hairs trying to find differences in policy and maybe a little bit of difference in personality," explained Theriault. "You're now having an entirely different animal, a Republican, and then an entirely other animal, a Democrat, who have very opposing views that are going to be contrasting and fact-checking each other and trying to figure out who is really the right person to lead America for the next four years."
With everyone watching, debates can be make or break time for a political candidate. Rick Perry's infamous "Oops" gaffe at a GOP primary debate in November 2011 was attributed by many political analysts to being the final straw in Perry's fall from Republican front-runner to also-ran.
Debates can launch a catchphrase, such as Al Gore's social security "lock box" and President George W. Bush's accusations of Democratic "fuzzy math," both of which phrases were widely parodied.
Debates can also affect an image, either negatively in the example of President George H. W. Bush caught checking his watch during debates in 1992, or positively in the example of President Ronald Reagan parrying a serious question over his age during a 1984 debate against Democrat Walter Mondale.
"I will not make age on issue of this campaign," a 73-year-old Reagan answered Baltimore Sun reporter and panelist Henry Trewhitt. "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
The Reagan line drew laughs from the audience, while the image of Bush consulting his timepiece multiple times throughout the debate drew ire from some.
"It reinforced people's negative stereotype of him," said Theriault. "But I think that's the last time the debate has really had some consequence, not to say that it couldn't happen this time. If Romney comes out of the boxing fighting, I think all bets are off, and we'll have a new story to talk about Thursday morning."
Theriault says the president's recent rise in the polls makes the battle a must-win for the governor, who he says will have to operate outside of his comfort zone in order to effectively use his time taking on the incumbent head-to-head.
"Barack Obama is ahead in the polls right now; he just needs to hold the ball and run out the clock," said Theriault, explaining the challenge for Romney in terms of redefining the dynamic of the race. "The last three weeks have not been good for [Romney's] campaign. So he not only has to stop the slide, but he has to start regaining some of that which he's lost the last three weeks, and the only way to do that is to not play a safe game on Wednesday night."
Of course the million dollar question for either candidate is whether the debates will help those on the fence make a decision one way or another.
"I think it might, depending on the answers of the candidates," said Alford. Others like Lustbader said their minds are made up. "There nothing conceivable that could happen that would influence my vote."
Either way, they'll be watching.
Wednesday night during the presidential debate, you can join the conversation about it on Facebook on The KVUE Insider.
Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Paul Sadler square off Tuesday night in Dallas at the first Belo Debate between major party nominees for Texas' open seat in the U.S. Senate hosted by KVUE's sister station WFAA. The debate will begin at 7:00 p.m. and broadcast live on KVUE as well as stream live online at KVUE.com.