Debates Could Turn Presidential Election

In a tight race, Romney's performance in next month's televised debates provide opportunity to shine.

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The presidential debates next month may offer Republican nominee Mitt Romney his only real chance to overtake President Obama in the race for the White House, according to key Democratic strategists.

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"They are do-or-die for Romney," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. He argues that Obama has built up a solid advantage in key swing states, including Ohio, New Mexico, and Michigan. And Garin, as with other Democratic strategists, says Obama's lead nationally, though slim, will be difficult for Romney to close because it is based on strong Obama support among key consitituencies such as African Americans and Latinos, and deep impressions of Romney as a mega-millionaire who doesn't understand the middle class.

Garin notes that in 2004, Democratic challenger John Kerry did well enough in his debates with President Geoege W. Bush to prompt voters to give him a second look. But they didn't like what they saw—someone who was out of touch and not very likable. The same thing could happen to Romney in October, Garin told me.

But Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told me that Obama will "have to explain to the American people why things are so bad," and the debates will give Romney a chance to make his case that Obama's economic policies have failed and the incumbent doesn't deserve a second term.

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GOP strategists also say Obama won't be able to adequately answer what they say will be the central question of the campaign: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" This was the question that Republican challenger Ronald Reagan asked Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter in a key debate in October 1980, and Reagan won.

Romney, realizing the stakes, has already begun preparing for the debates by taking time from the campaign trail to hold rehearsals and mock debates.

The first debate will be October 3 in Denver, less than a month away. The second will be October 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and the third is scheduled October 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column in the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.