DENVER, COLO: If Republican Mitt Romney stumbles during Wednesday’s presidential debate, it won’t be for a lack of preparation.
The Republican presidential nominee has spent at least eight days over the past month getting ready for the three debates against President Barack Obama. He’s holed up for hours on end with briefing books, top aides and his sparring partner, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, often at the expense of campaigning.
Romney began intense sessions Sept. 4 at an adviser’s home in Vermont. Those ran for three days and drew the campaign’s entire top echelon to a remote resort in the mountains. A few weeks later, top aides flew to Los Angeles for more practice. Romney has held debate practice at his Boston headquarters, and he spent part of last weekend at the Back Bay Events Center, where the auditorium holds 1,100 people.
The reasons are clear: The stakes are enormous given that Romney trails the president in surveys in key states and national polls favor Obama in a close race, and the debates are one of the Republican’s final opportunities to shift the dynamics of the race. Millions of people are likely to watch the debate at the University of Denver, as well as two more slated later this month in New York and Florida. And Romney is looking to use the forums to put Obama on his heels in the homestretch.
For Obama, he has one mission heading into his first debate with Romney: Don’t screw things up.
Five weeks from Election Day, Obama has political momentum, but he’s sure to face a blistering challenge from Romney.
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.
As Romney has prepared for the first matchup, one question has loomed over the others among both advisers and observers: Will he provoke Obama or will Obama provoke him?
To varying degrees, each candidate has the same objective: to keep from looking defensive when he feels he’s being unfairly or inaccurately criticized, while trying to get under his opponent’s skin.
“The challenge that I’ll have in the debate is that the president tends to, how shall I say it, to say things that aren’t true,” Romney told ABC News recently. “I’ve looked at prior debates. And in that kind of case, it’s difficult to say, ‘Well, am I going to spend my time correcting things that aren’t quite accurate? Or am I going to spend my time talking about the things I want to talk about?’ ”
To guard against Romney’s danger zone of getting hot when challenged, his sparring partner Portman has spent hours carefully weaving personal jibes into his answers during mock debate sessions. During each session, a group of top advisers have dissected his answers and his body language — and looked for ways to make him stronger.
Aides also are prepping the president to fend off Romney’s accusations of lying.
“This is a guy who will not back off delivering the negative and that’s not the easiest thing to do,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who is not working with Obama’s team but advised the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in his 1994 Senate campaign against Romney.
Obama and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who is playing Romney, have held several debate preparation sessions near the White House.