WASHINGTON (CNN) — With just 10 days to go before the first presidential debate, both campaigns are weighing what they can do to take advantage of the three head-to-head matchups in October that will help decide the race.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said GOP nominee Mitt Romney must use the debates to “score points” on the economy, the No. 1 concern of voters.
“The most important thing that Mitt Romney can do is give people confidence that he knows how to fix this economy,” Ayres told CNN’s Candy Crowley on “State of the Union.” “They don’t believe (President Barack) Obama has or can, but they are not yet persuaded that Mitt Romney can either. That’s the most important thing to come out of your debate.”
While national polls like Gallup show Obama and Romney neck and neck, recent ones in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin — key battleground states that will help determine the winner in November — show the president pulling ahead, with much closer contests in Colorado and Nevada. That could make it harder for Romney to do what analysts say he must to win the White House — carry all the states Sen. John McCain did in 2008, plus about half a dozen that Obama turned from red to blue.
With the conventions over, the debates are the last opportunity for the two candidates to reach the kind of large television audiences that could help them win over the dwindling number of undecided voters and energize their bases.
On ABC’s “This Week,” conservative writer Ann Coulter said the debates would be important “not because Romney is such a fabulous orator, but to the contrary — for the first time, Americans will be able to see Romney unfiltered. And I think it will make a big difference.”
And South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said on “State of the Union” that the former Massachusetts governor was “in good shape” and the debates would help shift the focus from perceived gaffes and missteps made by Romney in recent weeks — most notably his remarks calling 47% of the U.S. population “victims” who are dependent on the government — to Obama’s record.
Former President Bill Clinton told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Romney would have to explain the “47%” comments in the debates.
The challenge for the president is to convince doubters, some of whom may have been supporters in 2008, that his policies will succeed in turning the economy around.
“We’ve got an electorate that is disappointed in the president they elected in 2008, but not at all convinced that the Republican challenger offers a good alternative,” USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page told Crowley.
Obama campaign senior adviser Robert Gibbs continued to try to lower expectations for the president on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I think it’s always a big moment when two candidates get to sit side by side and answer the same question,” he said. “Mitt Romney I think has an advantage, because he’s been through 20 of these debates in the primaries over the last year. He even bragged that he was declared the winner in 16 of those debates. So I think, in that sense, having been through this much more recently than President Obama, I think he starts with an advantage.”
In other quarters, the discussion turned to whether the Romney campaign needed to make changes. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election with the help of a strong Republican ground game that the Obama campaign believes is benefiting Romney in that traditionally blue state. Walker said he wanted to see more passion from the GOP contender and suggested he needed to spend more time campaigning.
“I think you gotta get off the hills and you gotta get out and charge forward,” Walker said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Certainly, in part, this is a referendum on this president, there’s no doubt about it. But I think for most Americans — particularly in my state, where there’s an awful lot of swing, independent voters — they want to know more than what’s wrong with this president. They want to know what’s right and what’s going to move this country forward. I think Mitt Romney’s got this plan. I want to see fire in the belly.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus dismissed the handwringing among some Republicans about the state of the campaign and insisted Romney had a good week, despite an intense focus in the media on the “47%” comments, which were secretly recorded at a fund-raiser in Florida months ago.
“We had a good week last week, I think in retrospect, in that we were able to frame up the debate last week in the sense of, what future do we want, and do you want, out there for your kids and grandkids. And clearly, things are not going well in this country,” Priebus said on “This Week.”
Priebus’ comments echoed ones Romney made in a “60 Minutes” interview set to air Sunday night, in which he said his campaign did not need a turnaround.
“Actually, we’re tied in the polls. We’re all within the margin of error,” Romney told CBS’s Scott Pelley, in excerpts released ahead of showtime. “We bounce around, week to week, day to day. There are some days we’re up. There are some days we’re down.”
Obama campaign officials say it is not the national polls but the swing state polls that matter.
“We’re either tied or in the lead in every battleground state 45 days out,” campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters in Milwaukee on Saturday. “I think you will see a tightening in the national polls going forward. What I care way more about is Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Wisconsin, etc. In those states, I feel our pathways to victory are there. There are two different campaigns, one in the battlegrounds and one everywhere else. That’s why the national polls aren’t relevant to this campaign.”
Romney plans to spend part of the last full week before the October 3 debate on a bus tour in Ohio, while the president is scheduled to speak at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, before making campaign stops in Ohio and Virginia.
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