COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — President Barack Obama's re-election campaign doesn't want to talk about what the Democrat is doing to prepare for the fall debates with Republican Mitt Romney. But aides are readily setting expectations — and not surprisingly, they want to keep them low for Obama while raising the stakes for Romney.
"While Mitt Romney has done 20 debates in the last year, he has not done one in four years, so there certainly is a challenge in that regard," Jennifer Psaki, Obama's campaign spokeswoman, said of the president on Monday.
With Obama edging slightly ahead of Romney in public polling seven weeks from Election Day, the three October debates could be one of the Republicans' best opportunities to break through with voters. But the high-profile events are just as crucial for Obama, who was an uneven debater during the 2008 Democratic primaries.
In that way, some of the Obama campaign's tactical lowering of expectations is also rooted in the truth. Aides say the structured — and time-limited — nature of the debates isn't a natural fit for Obama, who often is long-winded when answering questions during news conferences or town hall-style meetings.
Obama's campaign purposely has been vague about how he is getting ready for the debates and aides refused to discuss details of his preparations publicly.
But those preparations are well under way. Obama has held multiple practice sessions, some with Massachusetts Democrat Sen. John Kerry, who is playing the role of Romney. One of the president's practice spots is at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters a short drive from the White House.
Romney, on the other hand, has not hidden that he's been in the midst of intense debate preparation since early September. That's when aides announced that the GOP nominee would spend much of the week of the Democratic National Convention off the campaign trail huddling with advisers in private debate sessions.
Romney got started early in part to help him get accustomed to the one-on-one format he'll face next month. Most of his numerous debates during the GOP primary featured several other candidates.
The Republican nominee is doing timed, mock debates with Ohio's Republican Sen. Rob Portman playing Obama. Longtime adviser Peter Flaherty is standing in as the moderator, asking questions about both domestic and foreign policy.
Top Romney advisers, including strategist Stuart Stevens, longtime aides Eric Fehrnstrom and Beth Myers, and senior adviser Ed Gillespie, then dissect the sessions.
Among the locales Romney has picked for debate preps are a friend's home in rural Vermont and a Marriott hotel in Burlington, Mass. Obama may also practice at the presidential retreat at Camp David, besides using DNC headquarters.
Obama's campaign has tried to use Romney's intense public preparations to ramp up expectations for the Republican.
"We know that Mitt Romney and his team have seemed to prepare more than any candidate in modern history," Psaki told reporters traveling with Obama in Ohio on Monday. "They've made clear that his performing well is a make-or-break piece for their campaign."
Romney's campaign countered Monday by noting that the president will be the only one on the debate stage in November with experience in three general election debates.
But the Republican nominee, a former Massachusetts governor, has tried to tamp down expectations, too.
During a Friday night flight to Boston, Romney and Portman walked to the back of the airplane to offer birthday greetings to two reporters covering his campaign. "Can you tell us a little bit about debate prep? How's he doing?" a reporter asked Portman. The senator replied, "He's doing great."
Romney, laughing, quickly interjected. Turning to Portman, he said: "Say nothing more."
The candidates will meet for three debates: a domestic policy debate in Denver on Oct. 3; a town hall-style debate in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 16, and a foreign policy debate in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 22.
Vice President Joe Biden and GOP running mate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin will meet for one debate in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 11 that will touch on both domestic and foreign policy issues.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt in Washington and Ken Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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