WASHINGTON - Just as the Super Bowl captures viewers who would rather fold laundry than watch a regular season football game, the appeal of presidential debates reaches beyond political junkies to voters who haven't been following the campaign.
Debates represent a chance to watch a zinger with a shelf life of decades and for millions of Americans to tune in just weeks before the election.
"This is part of the iconic American political landscape," said Robert Watson, a professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., which will host the final presidential debate this election cycle. "It's great drama; this is like the gladiators' ring. We're all sitting back and giving them the pink slip or report card."
More than 63 million viewers watched the second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. About 70 million saw Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Joe Biden face off, making it the most-watched vice presidential debate in history.
Watson said this year's debates could be more important than usual.
"Even though so many people have made their mind up, we all know this is going to be a nail biter and come down to a few critical counties in a few states," Watson said.
While President Obama and Mitt Romney have well-practiced stump speeches, the debate is a chance for Americans to hear them directly answer specific questions or artfully try to dodge them.
"The crucial independent voters, the low-interest voters, the persuadable often learn a lot from those debates," said J. Michael Hogan, director of The Center for Democratic Deliberation at Pennsylvania State University.
For those planning to tune in to tonight's debate, Annie Groer, a longtime Washington journalist, has a few tips.
"I would advise people to watch it with friends of all political persuasions," she said. "You want to see how the other person's team feels they are doing."
Groer also prefers to watch the debate unfiltered on CSPAN rather than allowing commentators to talk over any part of it. After the debate, she follows Tweets and watches journalists she trusts.
But Hogan suggests tuning out any political spinners or analysts. Instead, he says, give the debate a moment to sink in and make up your own mind.
Viewers should watch how the candidate responds, but also evaluate the question, Hogan said.
To him, a presidential debate should be about getting to the substance of what the candidates believe and plan to do. Too often, he said, the questions fail to do that.
"Sometimes the media does pursue an agenda that is focused more on misstatements and gaffes and errors the candidates have made than the larger substantive issues," he said. "Personally, I don't think the fact that someone worded something wrong and it created a media frenzy for three days is the way we want to judge those candidates."
Or to put more simply: "Sometimes the questions don't deserve to be answered," he said.
"This isn't a sporting contest," Hogan said. "It's about electing a president. The overall emphasis on who won and who lost I think is unfortunate."
And yet after tonight's debate, analysts and viewers will likely crown either Obama or Romney the winner. For the loser, that may or may not mean much.
"Debates are important and they're not important," Watson said. "It's possible to win a debate and lose an election. It's possible to lose a debate and win an election."
All debates start at 6 p.m. Tucson time and are scheduled to last 90 minutes.
Today: Presidential candidates. Denver. Topic - domestic affairs.
Oct. 11: Vice presidential candidates. Danville, Ky. Topic - domestic affairs.
Oct. 16: Presidential candidates. Hempstead, N.Y. Town-hall format.
Oct. 22: Presidential candidates. Boca Raton, Fla. Topic - foreign policy.