Robert Mentzer 715-845-0604

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resident Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney will square off Wednesday in the first of three presidential debates. The debate, which is being held in Dallas, will be broadcast from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The candidates will, no doubt, offer their competing visions for America in well-rehearsed soundbites. But as a viewer, it can be hard to evaluate which candidate is offering the best substantive answers on each issue. Use this handy scorecard to measure how you think the candidates do in each of the following key issue areas. Submit your scorecard to the Wausau Daily Herald by the end

of the day Thursday, and we’ll publish our readers’ score of the debate next weekend. Score each candidate 1 through 5 — with 1 being the worst answer, 5 being the best. You can submit your scores online by visiting

What other issue is there? The U.S. has had a growing economy for the past 23 months; but it’s also had unemployment above 8 percent for the past 42 months. The story of the last three years has been an economy that is improving, but slowly, and not fast enough to help the millions of Americans who are still out of work. Which candidate provided the most serious plan to improve the economy?

Obama and congressional Republicans failed to reach a deficit-reduction agreement last summer during debt ceiling negotiations, though who was at fault is a matter of significant disagreement. Obama has expressed support for a bipartisan framework for deficit reduction known as the Bowles-Simpson plan, though Republicans fault him for not being early enough nor full-throated enough in his endorsement. On the other hand, Republicans including vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan also reject Bowles-Simpson because it includes tax increases. Watch for how specific the candidates get when it comes to a deficit plan. And if either says he’s in favor of “closing tax loopholes” without specifying at least one, deduct at least a point. Who has the better spending plan?

The health care reform law known as Obamacare for the first time creates a framework for near-universal care for Americans, and it also contains numerous mechanisms intended to help contain the growth of medical spending in the future, both for the government and for individuals and companies. Both goals matter. Romney has argued that the law not only will fail to contain health costs but will make them even worse, and he’s attacked the tax increases and fees contained in the law. But Romney hasn’t yet offered a credible plan to provide coverage for the 50 million Americans who will get coverage under the law. Which candidate provides a credible plan for both expanding coverage and controlling costs?

Obama’s Race to the Top fund has spurred states to innovate within their education systems by dangling a pot of federal money before them. Yet Obama has not campaigned on Race to the Top much, perhaps because it’s somewhat unpopular with part of his base, namely teachers (and teachers unions). Deduct points in the category if the candidates speak in platitudes; add points if either one offers specific ideas about the right direction for education reform.

By some measures, Afghanistan is now our nation’s longest war. The U.S. timetable proposed by Obama would end the war by 2014. Romney has accepted that timetable, too, but has tended to add more caveats to it. Even as the U.S. moves to end the Afghanistan war, new challenges have emerged throughout the region. Who do you trust on foreign policy?

Obama’s immigration policies “have resulted in a record number of deportations in his first term,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations, but he “spearheaded a policy this past June that granted deportation immunity to some undocumented immigrants who arrived as children.” Obama favors comprehensive immigration reform, including some policies Romney has attacked as amnesty. Romney has called for an overhaul of the country’s legal immigration system. Who do you trust on immigration?

Deduct points any time a candidate brings up the words “You didn’t build that” or “47 percent” or any of the other boneheaded phrases that have marked this campaign. It’s not that we can never tell anything from those times when a candidate says something dumb. It’s that sometimes, this year, that has seemed to be all we are talking about. We’ve all heard more than enough of about the gaffes.

Does the candidate seem presidential? Do you trust the candidate? Does he speak to the American people as if we’re adults, and does he acknowledge in any real way the positive ideas that originate from the opposing side? These things matter, too, as we make up our minds.