* Romney trails in polls, some show tightening
* Voters like Obama, but concerned about his performance
* Candidates spend day preparing, touring debate site
By Steve Holland and Sam Youngman
DENVER, Oct 3 U.S. Republican candidate Mitt
Romney gets his first chance on Wednesday evening to go
head-to-head in a debate against President Barack Obama, and
potentially turn the tide of a campaign that has seen him
trailing for weeks.
The 90-minute encounter could reach 60 million people on
television, a far bigger audience than watched either candidate
speak at the Democratic and Republican conventions.
While that could pay dividends in attracting undecided
voters, there is also the risk of a major mistake that could
overshadow the last five weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
Both campaigns have been trying to tamp down expectations
for their candidates' performance, but they kept up fierce
attacks before the debate, and launched websites to provide
instant responses during it.
Romney's campaign hammered the Democrats over Vice President
Joe Biden's comment that the middle class has been "buried" for
four years. Obama's team lashed back that Romney's team was
resorting to a "desperate and out-of-context attack."
Running behind in the polls, Romney is more in need of a
victory than Obama at the University of Denver, the first of
three such face-offs scheduled in the next four weeks.
"I think (Romney's) got to have a pretty convincing win,"
said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy
Institute at Southern Illinois University. "He's had a bad few
weeks and he needs to change the narrative of the campaign."
The debate will focus on domestic issues, which are
particularly important as the U.S. economy struggles. I t will be
moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS and starts at 9 p.m. EDT (0100
GMT Thursday). Obama will get the first question and Romney the
The two candidates spent the day in last-minute
preparations. Romney met with his strategy team in the morning,
before an early afternoon walk-through of the debate hall. His
wife, Ann, was also attending the event.
Obama flew to Colorado from the resort in Nevada where he
spent three days preparing. He toured the debate site as soon as
he reached Denver, after Romney's visit, to get comfortable with
First lady Michelle Obama, who was campaigning in Reno,
Nevada, also was to travel to Denver. Wednesday was the first
couple's 20th wedding anniversary, but they delayed their
celebratory dinner until Saturday.
Romney has been struggling for weeks to overcome the effects
of a hidden-camera video of a private fundraiser in which he
deemed 47 percent of voters to be Obama supporters dependent on
government who do not take responsibility for their lives.
As voters have reacted to the tape and other Romney campaign
stumbles, most polls show Obama maintaining a lead over the
former Massachusetts governor, including in many of the
battleground states, such as Ohio, Virginia and New Hampshire.
The Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll on Wednesday showed
Obama up among likely voters by 47 percent to 41 percent. A new
NPR poll showed Obama up 51 percent to 44 percent among likely
A few other surveys showed a tightening race, including an
NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday with Obama up
by just 3 points among likely voters, at 49 percent to 46
percent. That compared with 5 points two weeks earlier.
In Denver, Romney must raise questions about Obama's
handling of the U.S. economy and explain how his own plan would
create more jobs and cut the budget deficit.
In a move that distracted from the economy theme, Romney
supporters re-released a video late on Tuesday from a 2007
speech by Obama, then a senator, in which he criticized the
government response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated
African-American areas of New Orleans.
Conservative media outlets said the tape showed the first
black U.S. president trying to fuel racial fires. Others said
the speech was widely reported at the time and called it a bid
to deflect attention from policy before the debate.
Romney must get through the debate without losing his cool
or appearing disrespectful to Obama, whom many Americans like
despite his struggle to create jobs. The often robotic
Republican could also do with showing some personality to make
voters feel more comfortable with him.
"Americans who are thinking about voting for Romney need to
hear from him about how he would change the country for the
better," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "They're
leaning toward the devil they know, which is President Obama.
Romney has to knock it out of the park by showing the contrast
between himself and Obama."
The Democrat must tell Americans why they should consider
themselves better off than four years ago, a key measure in
every presidential election. He needs to explain what he would
do to boost job creation in a second term.
With the U.S. jobless rate above 8 percent for 43 straight
months, huge federal budget deficits, and increasingly expensive
entitlement programs, the economy is voters' top concern.
The Obama camp notes that the president inherited a tough
economy from his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, and
that things have improved, if slowly. His first term has been
marked by fierce partisan battles that have frozen Washington
into political gridlock.
Biden appeared to veer from that script when he told a rally
on Tuesday that the middle class "has been buried the last four
years," just longer than Obama's time in the White House.
Obama campaign aides later underscored that Biden was
referring to the ill effects of Bush's policies, but Romney's
team seized on what they called a "stunning admission." They
hammered home the point with multiple news conference calls, a
new ad and even an "Honest Joe" T-shirt, on sale for $30.
So far, voters have seemed willing to cede that Obama was
dealt a bad hand, but they are looking for a clear way out of
the economic doldrums.
"He's got to reassure people who like him that it's OK to
vote for him again," Yepsen said.
ACROSS THE BOARD
While it is widely noted that Obama appears to have a lock
on the likability quotient, he also has managed to win over
voters on a broad array of issues.
A series of Reuters/Ipsos polls indicated that Obama had
small leads on separate questions about which candidate would
best handle the economy and who could create more jobs, even
though Romney has made his business experience as the head of a
private equity firm the centerpiece of his campaign.
Obama's campaign has cast Romney as a wealthy elitist who
stashes his $250 million fortune in offshore accounts to avoid
paying taxes, "flip-flops" his political positions depending on
his audience and campaigns by attacking Obama rather than
offering his own ideas for addressing the country's problems.
Obama himself has offered little in the way of a second-term
agenda beyond more of the same policies.
Romney late on Tuesday provided a bit of detail on how he
would achieve his pledge of giving taxpayers a sizable cut in
income tax rates. He said in a Denver television interview he
was considering capping tax deductions at $17,000 for most
taxpayers as one way to pay for his plan.
The next two presidential debates are Oct. 16, in Hempstead,
New York, and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Florida. B iden and Romney's
running mate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, will debate once,
on Oct. 11, in Danville, Kentucky.