Heading into Wednesday night’s first presidential debate, voters expect that Barack Obama will do a better job than Mitt Romney. A substantial majority of voters plan to watch the debate: 62% say they are very likely to watch, another 21% say they are somewhat likely.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Sept., 27-30 among 1,001 adults, including 828 registered voters, finds that by a 51%-29% margin, more voters say Obama will do better than Romney in Wednesday’s debate.

Nearly nine-in-ten Democrats (89%) expect Obama to do the better job in the debate. By contrast, Republicans are less confident in their candidate: 64% say Romney will do the better job, 16% say Obama. The balance of opinion among independent voters mirrors that of all voters: 44% say they expect Obama will do the better job, 28% say Romney.

The survey finds that overall interest in the debate is comparable to levels in 2008 and 2004 and higher than in 2000 and in 1996. Currently, 66% of Republican and 64% of Democratic voters say they are very likely to watch the debate; slightly fewer independents (58%) say they are very likely to watch.

Candidates and the Issues

Recent Pew Research Center surveys have found that voters offer tepid ratings for the 2012 field and that they give both the Obama and Romney campaigns fairly low grades. However, most voters say that the candidates have been talking about the important issues.

Overall, 72% of voters say the candidates have been talking about the issues that are important to them this campaign, just 24% say they have not been. This is comparable to the percentages who said the candidates were covering top issues in September of 2008 and 2000 and somewhat higher than the percentages who said this in September 2004 and 1996.

Majorities of Democrats (81%) and Republicans (73%) agree that the candidates have been addressing the important issues, as do 65% of independents. And 79% of those who have been following news about the candidates very closely also say that they have been talking about the important issues in this campaign.

Recent Weeks’ News

News about the candidates for the 2012 presidential election was the public’s top news story last week: 40% say they followed this news very closely, including similar percentages of Democrats (48%) and Republicans (46%); independents are following campaign news somewhat less closely (34% very closely).

Many also have been following news about the U.S. economy very closely. About a third (34%) say they followed economic news very closely last week, and a week prior, economic news (36% following very closely) rivaled interest in the campaign (38% following very closely).

About one-in-five Americans (19%) say they followed news about the controversy surrounding the National Football League’s use of replacement officials very closely. Fewer (10%) tracked news about the United Nations meetings in New York very closely. In the September 20-23, 2012 survey, a quarter (25%) said there were following the current situation and events in Afghanistan very closely.