Barring some kind of unforeseen crisis, scandal, or damaging gaffe, President Obama will enter next month’s debates with at least a slight but appreciable lead over former Gov. Mitt Romney. With the GOP convention having come and gone, and the Romney-Ryan campaign failing to alter the fundamental dynamics of a race that has favored Obama (again, slightly) all year, the debates offer Romney his last chance to make his case before a mass audience.

How will he do?

BuzzFeed’s Zeke Miller suggests that the Obama campaign has, behind the scenes, cleverly lowballed expectations for the president, such that “Romney may need to do handstands on stage to make an impression, while the president will win simply by keeping his shirt on.”

I doubt it will prove that easy for Obama.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows evaluates Romney’s skills as a debater, going back to his 1994 Senate race against the late Teddy Kennedy, and finds Romney at his most formidable when armed in advance (as when he carved up Newt Gingrich over his lobbying, I mean consulting, work for Freddie Mac), but prone to minor stumbles when caught off guard:

Relatedly, Fallows’s full-length piece on this subject is worth reading in full; it’s a fair assessment of both men’s strengths and weaknesses, and of the exceedingly high stakes of the debates. I will quibble, however, with this point:

When the economy is bad an incumbent is beset, the challenger’s task is simplified. He doesn’t need to belabor the case against the incumbent. Reality has already done that; everyone knows what’s wrong with the president that they have now. All the challenger has to say is: “Look me over. I’ll be okay in this job. You can feel comfortable with me.”

I’m not sure that’s right. The Romney campaign assumed that “reality” was doing its gloom-and-doomy job all summer — but still it felt compelled to “shake up the race” with the choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate. And the overriding objective of the soft-focus, “humanizing” convention in Tampa was to give undecided voters the chance to “look Mitt over” and “feel comfortable” with him. If post-convention polls are to be believed, a majority of voters are still saying “No sale.”

Romney would be a fool to approach the debates with the attitude that he can sit back, recite damning statistics about unemployment, poverty rates, food stamps, anemic growth, etc. and leave it at that. He’ll need to be more aggressive than that — and if Fallows is correct, he’s more than up to the task.

I wonder: how deft will be the Obama counterattack?

Cue the Michael Buffer, please: