Envoy David Jacobson says Wednesday's first presidential debate will play in key role in determining whether President Barack Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney get to tackle that job next year.
Jacobson says both White House hopefuls offer starkly different visions of the best way to repair the American economy.
"In this area, the two sides are just plain miles apart. This is the political stalemate that grips Washington," Jacobson told an audience of students and diplomats at Carleton University in Ottawa this week, where he was offering a primer on the Nov. 6 presidential election.
"I have often said that the single most important thing the United States can do for Canada is to get our economy back on track," he added.
"If we get our economy back on track, it has enormous positive implications for Canada."
Jacobson emphasized he was speaking as the U.S. ambassador to all Americans, even though he is a Democrat who was part of Obama's historic 2008 election team. He was the chief of Obama's appointments office for the first nine months of 2009 before he took up his post in Ottawa, three years ago this week.
Referencing various polls that show Obama leading in the key battleground states, Jacobson said the debate represents Romney's best opportunity to change the momentum of the race.
"The first debate is by far the most important debate," Jacobson said of Wednesday night's televised showdown from Denver, the first of three presidential debates.
"What we're really talking about is Wednesday night. Gov. Romney probably has to do very, very well in order for it to make a noticeable difference in this thing. The president probably has to stumble in some way for this to make a noticeable difference."
Both sides are trying to raise expectations for their opponents and lower expectations for their own candidate, but Jacobson said most Americans likely aren't buying the spin.
"What does have an impact is watching these two guys standing side by side. Traditionally that is a good thing for a challenger. The challenger stands next to the president of the United States and gets raised to the president's level."
Jacobson said Romney could get a bump after Wednesday's debate. And by his own analysis, the Republican challenger will need one.
Jacobson listed the battleground states that will decide the race, and detailed the president's lead in recent polls: Obama by 10 points in Michigan, eight in Pennsylvania, eight in Ohio, six in Colorado, six in Iowa, five in Wisconsin, four in Florida, three in Virginia, three in North Carolina, two in Nevada and one in New Hampshire.
By Jacobson's calculation, Obama will reach the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win even if he doesn't win Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada and New Hampshire — states where he leads anyway.
"What that means is that Gov. Romney has a tough path to victory. It's not going to be easy," said Jacobson.
"If the polls have any semblance of credence here, if the election were held today, the president would probably win."
But as Jacobson made clear, there are still five weeks remaining until election day, and anything can happen.
"But there is only one thing that I'm going to tell you all night that I am absolutely certain is correct. And that is: the election is not going to be held today."