HENDERSON, Nev. — President Barack Obama has one mission heading into his first debate with Republican Mitt Romney: Don’t screw things up.
Five weeks from Election Day, Obama has political momentum and an edge in polls of the battleground states that will determine the election. But he’s sure to face a blistering challenge from Romney, who needs to use Wednesday’s debate in Denver to change the trajectory of the race.
Both parties say the first debate traditionally helps the challenger, whose stature tends to rise in the eyes of many voters by simply appearing on stage as the alternative. Seeking to mitigate that effect, Obama aides are working with the president on keeping command of the debate while not being overly aggressive.
The president retreated to a desert resort in Nevada for three days of intensive debate preparation for Wednesday night. He was joined by a cadre of top advisers, who are focused on helping Obama trim his often-lengthy explanations to fit the debate format. Equally important is coaching Obama to look calm and presidential during an onslaught of criticism from Romney.
Obama’s campaign has tried — to the point of hyperbole — to lower expectations for the president and portray him as an underdog who hasn’t had enough time to get ready.
And despite Obama’s reputation as a gifted speaker, his 2008 debate performances were uneven.