WEST WINDSOR, Vt. (AP) — Obama-Biden signs dot the back roads of Vermont, a state that has voted for a Democratic president since 1988. One of the shops in the nearby town of Woodstock is called "The Collective." And yet, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney chose a friend's home in rural Vermont to hunker down to prepare for a trio of high-stakes debates.
Presidential candidates in the past have chosen their homes or battleground states for debate preparation. Not Romney — and his timing is unusual, too. Candidates usually spend the week of Labor Day campaigning heavily in battleground states. Romney, though, is staying largely out of the spotlight as President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party hold their convention in Charlotte, N.C.
In 2008, Barack Obama picked Florida and then North Carolina, both swing states, to practice and still appear at campaign events and earn local media coverage. Republican John McCain scheduled some of his sessions in Arizona, his home state. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry chose Wisconsin, where he and President George W. Bush were both competing, while Bush stayed at his Texas ranch to bone up.
The three presidential debates — the first is scheduled for Oct. 3 with the other two later that month — could represent the final opportunities for Romney or Obama to break out of a tight presidential race.
Romney's advisers say he was looking for the distraction-free quiet of Vermont's Green Mountains. But even when the Republican nominee made a brief foray into the town just across the nearby border with New Hampshire, a swing state, Romney knew he was still in unfriendly territory.
"It's not easy to win Lebanon, but I'd like to!" Romney told Terri Dudley, a woman who told him she runs his local campaign efforts and has plenty of campaign signs.
"You've got a lot of signs and I've got a lot of sons. We can put that together and make that happen!" Romney said, referring to his five children.
Lebanon borders Hanover, N.H., where Dartmouth College is located.
Romney stopped in West Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday afternoon, driving 40 minutes out of Vermont to do interviews via satellite uplink with TV stations in battleground states, including North Carolina, Nevada and New Hampshire.
But his local media footprint Wednesday morning was relegated to the lower half of the Vermont-based Valley News front page, underneath big headlines about first lady Michelle Obama's Tuesday night convention address. The story about Romney focused largely on the size of former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey's $3.9 million mansion, where Romney's debate practice sessions are being held.
Healey's home, situated about 10 miles from the nearest town, is out of view of the winding gravel road that leads to it. The presidential candidate made a more than two-hour drive from his home in New Hampshire on Tuesday morning through misty, rainy woods, passing horse farms and red barns. At one point, the motorcade got stuck behind a tractor.
Many of his campaign's top advisers are staying at a resort and spa in nearby Woodstock — in one store nearly everything for sale is made from flannel. Romney is spending his nights at Healey's home.
Romney's early debate prep is aimed in part at getting him accustomed to the one-on-one format he'll face next month. It's different from the primary debates, which featured multiple candidates on stage.
Relaxed and casually dressed, Romney is doing timed, mock debates with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who is playing Obama, according to advisers. Longtime adviser Peter Flaherty is standing in as the moderator, asking questions about both domestic and foreign policy.
Top advisers then dissect each session. Among those in Vermont for the sessions are strategist Stuart Stevens, longtime aides Eric Fehrnstrom and Beth Myers, and senior adviser Ed Gillespie.
Asked Wednesday how the preparations were going, Romney smiled and shrugged.
"I'm just glad I won't be debating Rob Portman in the final debates," Romney said. "He's good."
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