| DELRAY BEACH, Florida
DELRAY BEACH, Florida U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney were tied in a dead heat on Sunday with 16 days to go until the election, increasing the stakes for their third and final debate.
A NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had both Romney and Obama at 47 percent among likely voters, marking a comeback for the Republican since a series of missteps including the release of a secretly recorded video in which he suggested almost half of the electorate lives off government handouts.
The squeaky tight nature of the race brings an air of unpredictability to the last, intense round of campaigning and raises the importance of the face-to-face encounter between the pair on Monday night in Boca Raton, Florida.
Romney has been on a roll since soundly thrashing Obama at their first debate in Denver on October 3. The Democrat rebounded with a solid performance two weeks later in Hempstead, New York, but it wasn't enough to vault him back into a sizeable poll lead.
Improving economic conditions, like a drop in the jobless number and signs of recovery in the housing market, have also failed to give the incumbent a safe cushion in the polls ahead of the November 6 election.
Trying to putting a positive spin on the poll numbers, Obama aides said they felt good about their position in some of the battleground states where the election will be decided. Obama has been clinging to a small lead in all-important Ohio, for example, and early voting looks to be favoring the Democrats.
"We feel we're even or ahead in these battleground states. If you look at the early voting that's going on around the country, it's very robust and it's very favorable to us. And we think that's a better indicator than these public polls, which are frankly all over the map," said Obama senior adviser David Axelrod on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The final debate would seem to play more to Obama's strengths since it is focused on foreign policy. Obama gets credit for the U.S. mission that led to the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and for pulling troops out of Iraq.
Romney's campaign has made the weak U.S. economy the central issue and he is not a foreign policy expert although he is now getting regular U.S. intelligence briefings.
The Romney side brought up a New York Times story on Saturday about possible one-on-one talks between the United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, accusing the Obama administration of engaging in national security leaks to the news media.
"I don't know if it will be a big story. Both the White house and the Iranians have said it's not true. It sounds to me that it's another example of a national security leak from the White House, they've done a lot of that," said Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who plays Obama in mock debates to help Romney prepare.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a longtime Obama confidant, said the Obama policy toward Iran has paid off. "Iran is isolated from the rest of the world. Now that was steady, determined, dogged leadership, setting out a course," he told ABC's "This Week."
Both Obama and Romney were locked in weekend debate preparations sessions - Romney in Delray Beach, and Obama at his Camp David, Maryland, presidential retreat.
Romney emerged briefly to perform the coin toss for a beach football game between senior members of his staff and several reporters who cover his campaign.
Huddling with his staff, Romney joked to them: "Figure out which of their players are the best and take them out early... Don't worry about injuries, guys. This counts. Win!"
The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll said Obama still led Romney 49 percent to 44 percent among registered voters, but that this was down from a seven-point edge the president had among registered voters in late September.
"I like what I see because the trend is in our direction ... that's where you want to be at this point in the campaign," said Portman.
It was the latest poll showing Americans divided between giving Obama more time to fix the economy, or choosing a former business executive who argues he knows best how to create jobs.
A Reuters/Ipsos online poll on Saturday showed Obama with a razor-thin lead, 46 percent to 45 percent. The margin had narrowed from Friday when he had a three-point lead.
After Monday night's debate, Obama travels later in the week to battleground states of Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia and Ohio in a two-day campaigning blitz.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Deborah Zabarenko in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Sandra Maler)