Obama, Romney prepare to take stage in Denver for first debate

Top surrogates for President Obama and Mitt Romney played the expectations game Wednesday as the two candidates studied behind closed doors ahead of their clash at Wednesday night’s debate.

Advisers to Mitt Romney, who is seeking a breakout performance at the first debate, said the Republican would offer new specifics on how he would help the nation’s middle class.

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Voters will “see the Mitt Romney that really cares about putting the American people back to work,” Romney adviser Kevin Madden said in an interview on CBS.

"On the issue of tax reform, I think Gov. Romney will offer a great deal of specifics about what he would do to lower the middle class tax," Madden said.

Advisers to Obama, who will receive the first question at tonight’s 90-minute debate, pressed their case that Romney has yet to provide enough specifics about his policy plans for the country.

A Web video featuring deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter criticized Romney for offering only vague statements, while former White House spokesman Robert Gibbs promised Obama would challenge Romney to offer more on stage.

"The Romney campaign says they really don’t have time to discuss the specifics of their tax plan. And, you know, this is a $5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy," Gibbs said Wednesday on CBS.

Stakes for the debate were raised even higher by new polls that showed Obama retaining a lead in Ohio, while seeing his advantage narrow in both Florida and Virginia.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday night showed the president leading Romney 50 percent to 43 percent in Ohio, but ahead by just a single percentage point in Florida and by 2 points in Virginia.

While losing Ohio would make it much more difficult for Romney to reach 270 electoral votes, the close races in Virginia and Florida offered hope he is narrowing the race after a difficult few weeks.

Nearly four in 10 registered voters in the NBC survey said the debates were "extremely" or "quite" important in helping determine their votes, and a Gallup poll released Tuesday found that 15 percent of voters said the debates could change their mind about their preferred candidates.

Romney should benefit from the stature gained by appearing on the debate stage, which casts him as an equal of the president. But he also must reverse the trend of voters souring on him personally.

One key to that is parrying Obama attacks that his plans are unrealistic — this explains in part the new details being promised by his campaign.

Romney chief counsel Ben Ginsberg echoed Madden, saying Romney would offer more on his plans tonight and in the coming days.

“I don’t want to steal the thunder on that. ... You will get to hear that from his mouth in the coming days,” he said at an event Wednesday sponsored by Politico.

The rules for Wednesday’s debate, signed off on by both campaigns, will be structured into six 15-minute segments.

Moderator Jim Lehrer will ask a question at the top of the segment, and each candidate will be given two minutes to respond. Lehrer will then use the remainder of the segment to address follow-up questions, but candidates will not be allowed to address questions to each other.

The Obama campaign said Wednesday that the president would receive the first question, and that turns would alternate after that.

The president, who has been preparing in Las Vegas this week, is expected to arrive in Denver around 4 p.m. Eastern time, and the White House advised that he will do a walk-through of the debate area sometime in the afternoon.

The Romney campaign has not yet confirmed the candidate's movements for the afternoon, although he will likely also scope out the debate hall before the evening's proceedings.

And, the Romney campaign said, the Republican nominee will have his "lucky charm" — wife Ann — at his side. In an interview set to air on CNN ahead of Wednesday's debate, the potential first lady said Romney typically looks for her in the audience at debates and in her direction "almost after every answer."

“So even on stage, there’s an emotional connection that’s happening between the two of us during the debate itself,” Ann Romney said. "He just needs just that connection. And almost after every answer that he gives, he’ll find me in the audience to see, 'was that good, was that OK?' ”

First lady Michelle Obama, in a pre-taped interview with the "Steve Harvey Show" that airs Wednesday, noted that Wednesday's debate fell on the Obama's 20th wedding anniversary. The couple is planning a belated celebration on Saturday.

"He's hard to shop for," the first lady joked. "I've gotten him every golf thing that you can imagine, so I had to really dig deep on this one."


This post was updated at 3:46 p.m.