Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

Regular readers of this column will know that I have often advised anyone trying to follow US presidential elections not to take spring and summer (or earlier) developments too seriously. Now, however, with the 2012 election merely five weeks away, we have reached the point when even casual observers need to begin paying attention.

A few hours after this column is published, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet in Denver, Colorado, for the first of their three debates.

For readers in the UAE and the Gulf, the first thing to be said about the early Thursday morning (Dubai time) match-up is that one should not expect to hear anything about the Middle East. This first debate is confined to domestic affairs. Foreign policy is slated to be the focus of the pair’s final meeting, on October 22, though it may also come up in debate No 2 — which will take place on October 16 and be built around questions from an audience of undecided voters.

Conventional wisdom holds that the stakes this week are especially high for Romney. In the month since the Republican convention, very little has seemed to go right for the GOP [Grand Old Party, read Republicans] challenger. He has committed political gaffes, been embarrassed by a secretly recorded video of a talk to rich campaign donors, faced sharp criticism from his own side and seen his poll numbers steadily erode. It has become a cliche to say that the debates represent his last chance to turn things around, but if the debates do not change the overall tenor of the race, it is hard to see what else can.

Of course, in America’s increasingly polarised and partisan media environment, what sort of change is necessary (or desirable) depends a lot on where one’s information is coming from. While foreign policy may not be on the agenda for the first presidential debate, it definitely remains one of the top items that the political right believes should deny Obama a second term.

That may sound odd to some: Foreign policy is widely viewed as one of the president’s strengths. For many on the right, however, that statement is just more proof that the entire world is biased against them. Anyone getting their election news mainly from Fox over the last two weeks might be surprised to learn that Romney’s troubles were September’s main political story.

At Fox, they take a back seat to last month’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. For Fox, Romney’s petty and premature response long ago ceased to be worth mentioning. Their focus is the Obama administration’s confusion over whether Benghazi was a spontaneous outbreak of mob violence or a carefully planned terrorist attack. The White House seems to have settled on the latter, after fumbling the issue for the better part of two weeks, but on Fox (and in other right-of-centre media outlets) the issue remains ripe for debate as a litmus test for administrative competence.

Of nearly equal importance for Fox viewers was Obama’s decision not to hold any bilateral meetings with foreign leaders during his visit to the United Nations last week. The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the leaders with whom Obama did not meet looks, from the right, like yet more evidence of arrogance and incompetence.

The degree to which these stories continue to drive the right-wing media, long after they moved below the fold everywhere else, has been fascinating to watch.

And that, perhaps, is the most important observation as this election heads into the home stretch. In a country that has been sharply polarised for over a decade, it is a bit shocking to surf around one’s TV, radio or computer and discover the degree to which Americans live in what often seem to be utterly separate political worlds.

The debates are likely to bring these worlds into sharper focus, particularly on October 16 when the questions will come from ordinary (albeit carefully-screened) voters. Romney is likely to be forced to confront the belief that he cares more about companies than about people. Obama is likely to be confronted with the right wing view that constructive engagement with the wider world is a sign of weakness and a failure of American leadership.

How each candidate copes with these sorts of questions will do much to set the tone for the final days of this campaign.

Gordon Robison, a long-time Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.