President Barack Obama travels to Henderson, Nev., on Sunday for a mission far more important than the usual swing state campaign rally: He will huddle privately with senior aides for an intensive three-day boot camp to prepare for the first presidential debate.
On Monday, Mitt Romney will do the same with his advisers in Denver, Colo., two days before the rivals take the stage at the University of Denver for a 90-minute faceoff focused on the economy.
Their willingness to nearly disappear from public view for 48 to 72 hours reflects the high stakes of the three October debates for both men, as Obama has assumed a small but clear lead in the polls with five weeks remaining in the race.
If 2008 is a guide, the nationally televised debates could reach audiences of up to 60 million viewers, by far the largest platform either nominee will have to reach voters. Both sides view the debates collectively as the event with the most potential to alter the dynamics of the race in the final month.
Republican strategists, fretting over Obama’s recent rise, said the debates could be the last best chance for Romney to deliver a decisive blow, change the narrative and steady his campaign. They said Romney would try to force the president out of his comfort zone by attacking Obama’s economic record, then hope the president blunders trying to defend it.
“The president has compiled a miserable economic record over the last four years, with higher unemployment, lower incomes, rising energy costs, out of control Washington spending,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. “Those are some of the issues you can expect Mitt Romney to talk about.”
Obama and his advisers say they recognize the risks, and they have sought to play down expectations. They note that this would be Obama’s first debate in four years, while Romney has had more recent practice with a string of primary debates. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina called Romney a “very skilled debater” and claimed that Romney won 19 of the 23 Republican primary debates.
“The Romney team has made no secret of the intense preparation of their candidate, and historically challengers benefit from simply being on the stage with the incumbent,” Messina said this week, “so we are clear-eyed about how prepared he will be and about how difficult this debate will be.”
Although his advisers have been mum on the details, the president’s cram sessions are likely to include rigorous policy briefings, mock debates, with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., playing the role of Romney, and a critical review of Obama’s own bad habits.
Obama has been concentrating on shortening his responses, aides said, because his tendency to slip into professor mode when he’s explaining things limits the media-friendly sound bites that can form lasting impressions on viewers.
“The president is familiar with his own loquaciousness,” campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, fretting that run-on responses can be a drawback in debates with a time clock.
Romney has been blocking out an hour or two nearly each day to study Obama’s policies and reviewing briefing books. He also spent the week of the Democratic National Convention rehearsing for the debate.
Romney will conduct a two-day boot camp, with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, playing the role of Obama, as he did preparing for debates with Sen. John McCain in 2008. Portman has been a semi-regular on the Romney campaign plane in the past several weeks.
As Romney aides are quick to point out, Obama has participated in one-on-one debates more recently than Romney, who hasn’t faced a head-to-head matchup since his successful Massachusetts governor’s race in 2002.
This summer, the president held several practice sessions at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, under the guidance of senior White House adviser David Plouffe, communications director Dan Pfeiffer and strategist Anita Dunn, among others. Kerry was tapped to stand in for Romney because of his familiarity with both the debate format and Romney’s record in Massachusetts.
Aides said the president will again frame the election as a choice between his and Romney’s policies. Obama has warned voters that his rival would harm the middle class by giving tax breaks to the wealthy and rolling back Wall Street regulations.
Republican strategists cautioned that the president is a skilled orator, one whose windy approach could help him deflect criticism and filibuster through answers and run out the clock. The key for Romney, they said, is to force Obama to stray from his prepared script.
These strategists point to recent moments, such as when Obama, pressed during a televised Univision forum in Miami, stated that he has been unable to “change Washington from the inside,” a remark Romney pounced on to suggest the president has been a failure in his first term.
“This is the first time in four years where the president is standing toe-to-toe with a person on a stage who will have no reticence telling him directly to his face what a bad job he’s doing, and that’s always a dangerous moment for the president,” said GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s campaign. Romney is “going to want to go out and draw blood.”
GOP strategists says that Obama also can come across as arrogant. During the Democratic primary in 2008, Obama was mocked when he told then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during a debate that she was “likable enough,” an aside that struck many viewers as condescending.
“President Obama is obviously charismatic, a good speaker,” said Charlie Black, another GOP consultant who helped McCain in 2008. “His only mistakes or rough patches are when there are unanticipated questions or he has not rehearsed something… . He’s combative, and he can even be dismissive.”
Romney will have his own challenges. Although he generally stood out as the best performer in the GOP primary field, Romney became the object of some ridicule after a December debate in which he offered to make a $10,000 bet against Texas Gov. Rick Perry over a disagreement on health-care policy. For some, the moment reinforced the perception that Romney’s wealth renders him as out-of-touch with ordinary Americans.
Against Obama, Romney “must forcefully insert himself into the conversation,” said GOP communications consultant Brett O’Donnell, who was widely credited with helping Romney shore up his primary debate performances.
“He can’t let the president filibuster,” added O’Donnell, who has since left the Romney campaign after reportedly clashing with other aides. “He has to stay on offense, not by attacking, but by staying on message and focusing on the economy and tying the president to his economic policies.”