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President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney both campaigned in the battleground state of Ohio last week. Fierce and determined competitors, Obama and Romney each have a specific mission for the string of three debates that starts Wednesday night.

First debate jitters? Obama, Romney camps maneuver for advantage

As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney rehearse for their first big debate Wednesday, both sides are playing the expectations game. Given recent polls, there’s more pressure on Romney to perform.

As the clock ticks toward the first presidential debate Wednesday, the Romney and Obama camps are maneuvering for position, framing the event to best advantage, hearing (but not necessarily taking) the advice of pundits,

The scene was on full array on the Sunday TV blabfests.

"At the end of the debate Wednesday night, Romney has to be a clear alternative," Romney’s former GOP rival Newt Gingrich advised on CBS’s "Face the Nation.”

"He doesn't have to hit a home run,” the former House Speaker said. “But Romney has to be, at the end of the debate Wednesday night, a clear alternative who is considered as a potential president by a majority of the American people in order for his campaign to have a chance to live."

That last dark phrase – “to have a chance to live” – implies a steep uphill path for Mr. Romney, who remains behind in most national and state polls.

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Acknowledging that Romney has had “a tough couple of week,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put more positive spin on how the Republican challenger will do Wednesday night and where the race is headed.

"That's where he shines," Gov. Christie said, also speaking on CBS. "He's going to lay out his vision for America, and for the first time a majority of the people who are going to vote in this race will have an opportunity to make that direct comparison."

"This whole race is going to turn upside down come Thursday morning," he said – implying, as Gingrich did, that Romney’s pre-debate position does not portend victory in November.

“We've had some missteps, but at the end of the day, the choice is really clear and we're giving people a very clear choice,” Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Still, Rep. Ryan sought to downplay the importance of the debate.

“I don’t think one event is going to make or break this campaign,” he said. “Look, President Obama is a very gifted speaker. The man’s been on the national stage for many years, he’s an experienced debater, he’s done these kinds of debates before. This is Mitt’s first time on this kind of a stage.”

Still, as Fox News host Chris Wallace pointed out, Romney did endure 23 debates during the primary campaign, and he’s been running for president non-stop since before the 2008 election.

Not surprisingly, White House senior adviser David Plouffe plays up Romney’s debating skills.

“He’s prepared more than any candidate I think maybe in history, certainly in recent memory. He’s been a good debater in the past. He’s very prepared. He’s got all these clever zingers and lines in his pocket, so we understand he’ll probably have a good night on Wednesday night.” Mr. Plouffe said on ABC's "This Week."

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Plouffe tossed a little taunt at his Republican rivals: “It’s important to understand: the election is happening right now. People started voting in Iowa this week. They will in Ohio next week. People are requesting absentee ballots. We like what we’re seeing in those numbers.”

Will Wednesday’s debate and the subsequent encounters make much difference to the outcome?

“They sometimes have a short-term effect, a bounce in response to the debates, but at the end of the day there often is not much of an effect,” Robert Erikson, author of “The Timeline of Presidential Elections,” told the Daily Beast.

The Gallup polling organization found that in just two elections since the advent of televised debates was the outcome impacted in a perceptible way: The debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 and a debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000.

On one thing, everybody agrees: Moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS is uniquely qualified to be a fair inquisitor.

“Jim’s reputation is unassailable. He reeks integrity,” Tom Brokaw, the veteran “NBC Nightly News” anchor, told Politico. “He knows that his role there is to make this about the two candidates, not about him.”

“Jim is the best person for the job, the straightest guy in this profession, and absolutely trustworthy,” said Robert MacNeil, Lehrer’s longtime co-host on the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” “His idea of fairness is fiercer than anyone’s – he has an almost religious respect for being fair. He stays so far out of the political swamps that he doesn’t even vote.”

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