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Romney debate challenge: High stakes, lowered expectations

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 5:02 PM EDT, Fri September 28, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The pressure is on Mitt Romney to pull off a solid debate performance
  • The Romney campaign is trying to lower expectations
  • Experts say Romney needs to hammer home his plan for fixing the economy
  • First of three presidential debates is October 3rd in Denver

Washington (CNN) -- He's prepped. His campaign's armed with spin. All that's left for Mitt Romney to do is to step into the proverbial ring and verbally duke it out with someone his own campaign called a "universally acclaimed public speaker."

Romney enters Wednesday's debate in Denver down in swing state polls and trying to recover from his politically damaging comments about nearly half the nation being shoo-ins for President Barack Obama.

Moreover, a chorus of media — both mainstream and partisan — has sounded alarms about how high the debate stakes are for the Republican presidential hopeful.

A CNN/ORC International poll taken just after the Democratic National Convention earlier this month gives Obama a 25-point (59%-34%) advantage among likely voters over Romney when asked which candidate is more likely to win the debates.

"He has to have a miracle debate," said David Lowry, director of the Center for American Political Responsiveness at Pennsylvania State University.

No pressure.

Pre-game: Debate prep and punditry

Despite the Romney campaign's attempts to downplay expectations for his performance, political experts, pundits and even GOP strategists say the stakes couldn't be higher. The task for Romney, they say, is to clearly lay out how he will help pull the nation out of the economic doldrums and lead the country on the world stage.

And he must do all of this while working to change the narrative that the Obama campaign has pushed of Romney as out of touch with mainstream America.

"It's getting late in the game and it might be the last best chance to change that perception," said one veteran Republican presidential campaign strategist who didn't want to be identified speaking about campaign strategy.

New polls sees Obama with a slight lead
Avlon: It's the social issues, stupid
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Gross: Make education a priority in U.S.

Conservative writer Ann Coulter said on ABC last week that the debates are important because voters will see an "unfiltered" Romney, which she says will make all the difference with undecided voters.

Romney campaign memo seeks to lower debate expectations

However, the Romney campaign, Republican strategists and debate experts point out the debates also provide the presidential hopeful with an opportunity to hit Obama directly on his record. And they tried to create some expectations for their opponent.

"Based on the campaign he's run so far, it's clear that President Obama will use his ample rhetorical gifts and debating experience to one end: attacking Mitt Romney. Since he won't -- and can't -- talk about his record, he'll talk about Mitt Romney," Romney senior campaign adviser Beth Myers wrote in a memo obtained by CNN.

"If President Obama is as negative as we expect, he will have missed an opportunity to let the American people know his vision for the next four years and the policies he'd pursue. That's not an opportunity Mitt Romney will pass up," Myers wrote.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres said Romney must use the debates to "score points" on the economy, the No. 1 concern of voters.

"The most important thing that Mitt Romney can do is give people confidence that he knows how to fix this economy," Ayres told CNN's Candy Crowley on "State of the Union." "They don't believe Obama has or can, but they are not yet persuaded that Mitt Romney can either. That's the most important thing to come out of your debate."

The three debates will command a great deal of attention over the next month and leave only two weeks between the last debate and Election Day.

What will it take for Romney to win?

Obama senior adviser Robert Gibbs said that Romney's more recent exposure to the debate stage during the hotly contested Republican primaries gives him an edge.

"Mitt Romney, I think, has an advantage because he's been through 20 of these debates in the primaries over the last year," Gibbs said on Fox News.

The debate could also give Romney an opportunity to deftly preempt digs at his wealth and his federal income tax rate of 14.1%, said Melissa Wade, a debate professor at Emory University.

The very nature of debates can help elevate a challenger since he is standing toe-to-toe with an incumbent on a national stage, said presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. This was certainly the case in 1960 when John F. Kennedy successfully debated Vice President Richard Nixon.

The debates also provide a chance for voters to observe a candidate's mettle, Goodwin said.

"Even though a lot of it is programmed, there are still those moments that neither one expected. And it's sort of like championship boxing," she said. "But you do get revelations of character, of temperament, of humor, of anger, and you get a feeling of this person during these one-on-one debates that really nothing else can provide."

CNN's Dana Davidsen and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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