Sometime over the weekend both US President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney will slip out of public gaze to prepare for their first debate on October 3.
Obama is headed for Henderson, Nevada. But there are no indications yet where Romney will be practicing. He has been getting some practice unlike the President though.
Romney was in the US state of Vermont practicing at the home of his deputy from his days as governor of Massachusetts, the week of the Democratic convention in Charlotte.
Senator Rob Portman is playing the role of Obama in mock debates, and is giving the former governor a tough time. Romney will need that practice, and more.He is going into the debate trailing Obama in polls nationally and in all battleground states (not solidly committed to any one party), where he needs to do well.
Gallup has Obama leading Romney by 6 points — 50 % to 44 % — and conservative-leaning Rasmussen has the president leading by 1 point, nationally.
"If Romney has any chance of turning the election in his favour, it seems that the debates may be his last chance," said Mitchell S McKinney of the University of Missouri.
And a good debate could make a huge difference. "Research shows that debates were influential in the outcome of several very close races, including the elections in 1960, 1976, 1980, and 2000," said McKinney, who studies presidential contests.
The Republican candidate has had a terrible past few weeks. He first misspoke on Libya attacks, then a video surfaced of a fundraiser on which he was seen and heard rubbishing 47% of Americans who don't pay taxes and vote for Obama.
He has struggled to bring his campaign back on track with calls from his Republican party for a shake-up, reset and if nothing else works, just go aggressively after Obama.
Running mate Paul Ryan hasn't helped Romney's case much after the bump following his announcement. And has taken to calling the former governor "The Stench".
Not a very nice think to say about the presidential candidate, but Ryan is frustrated by falling numbers and is believed to be breaking free from the campaign's tight rein on him.
There is no doubt Romney's campaign is in trouble at this point. And he is expected to come out swinging at the debates, specially the first one, in Denver, Colorado.
"If he is able to aggressively catch Obama on his claims about his administration's performance he has a shot," said Allan Loudon of Wake forest university, North Carolina.
Romney will have plenty of opportunity for that at Denver. The first debate will about the economy and health care.
Divided into six segments of 15 minutes each, the first three will be about the economy, and the rest will be about health care and the role and size of government.
Romney will probably enjoy first three as the president is the most vulnerable on economy. But he might not enjoy the second half — at the least the health care part of it. While Obama will count health reforms among his noteworthy achievements, Romney will be squirming. His own health care reforms from his days as governor of Massachusetts is said to be the inspiration for Obama’s version. But Romney will be attacking it, not claiming credit.
Obama's challenge, said McKinney, will be to avoid gaffes and mistakes. And, most importantly, "respond to the likely heavy barrage of attacks that he'll receive".
Romney campaign aides have said their candidate's likely strategy will be to keep attacking the president force him to make a mistake, say something silly. But experts agree Obama is no pushover, and he rarely strays from the script. And, never loses his cool. "He can actually be too cool," said Loudon.
And he can be arrogant. An exchange from a debate he had in 2008 primaries against Hillary Clinton is often cited as proof. He told her patronisingly "You are likable enough, Hillary." Obama got hammered for it.
The president has also to watch out against long-winding answers, when he gets all professorial. That worries his aides, who have talked about it publicly.
To top it all, he has had little time to practice. "Incumbent president typically don't get much of that," said Loudon. So the president will try in Henderson, with senator John Kerry playing the role of Romney.