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Player of the week: Mitt Romney

This is the biggest week of Mitt Romney’s life.

On Wednesday, he will participate in this year’s first presidential debate, at the University of Denver. That showdown might be the last chance Romney has to tighten a race that has started to slip away from the GOP.

Romney’s debate performances in the GOP primary were inconsistent. He made mistakes, such as his embrace of “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants and his proposed $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).

But he also thrived at times, most notably when he thrashed Newt Gingrich in their Florida debate following the former Speaker’s triumph in the South Carolina primary.

President Obama is a great orator, but he too has had uneven debate performances. His “You’re likable enough, Hillary” line at a 2008 primary debate helped then-Sen. Clinton stun Obama in New Hampshire.

Seeking to lower expectations, Obama aides note the president hasn’t participated in a debate since 2008 while Romney has sharpened his skills in the 20 Republican primary debates. Republicans point out those were not one-on-one debates.

Regardless of the spin on both sides, the pressure is on Romney.

Many Republicans believe the 2008 presidential race was unwinnable because of voter fatigue with the George W. Bush administration. But they think this year is different, citing the ailing economy, high gas prices and polls showing that most people think the country is on the wrong track.

The first of the three debates is the most important because it always attracts the highest ratings. Romney has to land punches while not appearing desperate. To put it simply, he needs a game-changer.

If he comes up short, Obama will likely win a second term.

Some pundits have already written Romney off, saying the “47 percent” video was the final nail in the coffin.

Political winds can change quickly, as evidenced by the blue wave of the elections of 2006 and 2008, followed by the red wave in 2010.

Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), have billed themselves as “American’s Comeback Team.” For Republicans, the comeback needs to start Wednesday night.