With the polls showing Barack Obama on track to victory, the burden falls on Mitt Romney to derail the president’s train, starting with the first debate at the University of Denver on Wednesday night (8 pm CT).

On Sunday, I called University of Chicago political science professor Charles Lipson, who told me he’s voting for Romney. He emphasized that he’s no Romney surrogate and is liberal on social issues (he would not have voted for, say, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum). “People who have a harsh and distrusting attitude toward gays and the like, I just find that repulsive and I disagree with that sharply,” Lipson said.

While he doesn’t go so far as Romney backers and Fox News pundits who say that the polls are fixed to favor Obama, Lipson stipulated that polling has “an element of art as well as science.” He mentioned the issue of “whether the polls do accurate sampling” and “the biggest variable that requires judgment by the polling organization is what the turnout will be among subgroups. You try to screen them by asking questions related to whether or not they plan to vote, but the question [remains] how you judge that.”

Speaking to me from his home in Hyde Park, Lipson said he’s not ready, “by any means,” to call the election for Obama, although the prof maintained that Romney is finished if he doesn’t win the first debate—“and win it clearly enough that even the New York Times recognizes it.” The first debate, he explained, has the biggest viewership and it’s the one to which unaffiliated voters pay the most attention. Lipson emphasized that this is not just his opinion; “it’s what the research shows. Just as you might think that the last [monthly] jobs report [out the Friday before election day] is the most important, it’s not; people have already baked in their view of what the economy is.”

Wednesday’s debate focuses on domestic policy. The next presidential debate, on October 16 at Hofstra University on Long Island, will address both foreign and domestic policy. The last debate, on October 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, is devoted entirely to foreign policy. We agreed to talk again before debates two and three—although, Lipson restated his contention that if Romney doesn’t decimate or at least relentlessly dominate Obama, it won’t much matter what happens in those debates.

Below is a list of what Romney must do in Wednesday night’s debate, according to Lipson:

+ “Turn the conversation toward the future, be concrete and tough about what he wants to do without appearing harsh or disrespectful. Just as I think Barack Obama can’t get much more mileage out of simply referring to the problems that George Bush left him—after all we hired [Obama] to solve those problems—I don’t think Romney can get much more mileage out of blaming the current situation on the president. Romney backers who thought that [his] biography, plus the current economic conditions were sufficient to produce a victory, were wrong, so he has to be more affirmative and more aggressive.

+ “Take some of the risks that come with being behind. In a football game, when you’re behind more than just a few points, you have to move to a passing game, and I think Romney has to be more aggressive than if he were simply protecting a lead, and so I would urge him to put aside all the focus-group-tested answers and put aside what all of his people tell him.”

+ “Differentiate what he will do from what Obama will do, and the problem there is that Obama hasn’t said what he will do. Neither candidate has defined very much about what they’ll do in a new term other than in the very broadest sense. Romney has to be future looking and draw sharp distinctions between what he will do and what President Obama will do.”

+ “Get the 47 percent comment off of his back. He really has to dispatch that. He has to make clear over and over that his goal is to grow the economy for everyone.”

+ Take advantage of the fact that Obama’s debating skills will be rusty. “Even the best athletes, if they take off for awhile, become a little rusty. He does sometimes make mistakes when he’s not reading from the teleprompter, and he has a notoriously thin skin, which could allow some of the less appealing parts of his personality to come across. The big advantage to Romney is that the news media is so openly opposed to him and spins everything that the real advantage is that the debate is actually watched by people, so it’s less mediated. A lot of times peoples’ attitudes toward the debate don’t form for a day or two. So the chance of NBC and CBS and the New York Times to spin the debate afterwards and make it kind of appear to be a foregone conclusion about what happened is not entirely missing."

+ “Raise the issue of the deficit, but the key for Romney is to somehow connect the deficit to concrete and real problems that America is facing today—and will be facing unless it is solved. The tradition, until a couple of years ago, until the Tea Party,  was that the deficit was politically irrelevant—at least electorally irrelevant—and I think that the Romney campaign has not really done an effective job of showing how the deficit problems are harming ordinary Americans. President Obama’s statement the other day that he’s responsible for only 10 percent of the increased deficit during his time in office is deeply disingenuous. If Romney is unable to attack that effectively, he’s missed a grand opportunity.”

+ Lay out just how sick the economy is, despite an uptick in consumer confidence. “Normally at this point you get what’s called a V-shaped recovery, so you get four percent annual growth. The fact that we’re getting 1.5, plus or minus, it shows that something is deeply wrong.” [I mention to Lipson that I’m told that President Obama believes the economy is going to come “roaring” back and that what keeps him up at night is the prospect of Mitt Romney taking credit for Obama’s policies.] Lipson says: “He should sleep easier. At four years after the crisis, we’re still in absolute economic stagnation. We’re not producing enough jobs each month to meet the number of new entrants into the work place, and so real unemployment is actually rising. Yes, the economy could come back, but it’s not going to come roaring back. There are no external engines in the world economy that can help pull America up. China is growing far slower than it was growing a couple of years ago,  and Europe even slower than America, and many of  the key economies in Europe have slipped into a double-dip  recession. I think there are very serious crises ahead."

+ “Point to the fact that the big programs that Obama has launched, the stimulus and health care and Dodd Frank didn’t create jobs and added huge amounts of regulatory burden and uncertainty to the economy. He’s got to tie this slow growth to Obama’s policies. If he can’t do that he won’t win the debate.”