Tension is building ahead of Wednesday's presidential debate, which will be one of the most closely watched events of the five-week sprint to election day. And in the lead-up to the Denver debate, President Obama and Mitt Romney have been battling fiercely to lower expectations for their performances — a time-tested strategy to avoid coming across as the night's loser. It's gotten pretty ridiculous, says Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. "Both campaigns are... portraying their guy as something close to pre-verbal, shambling, perhaps suffering from early on-set dementia, certainly barely able to stand on their own in a debate." Here, eight of the most over-the-top attempts to lower the bar:
1. The president is just a so-so debater
At a rally this week in Las Vegas, Obama told supporters that he was looking forward to the first debate, noting that campaign watchers in the media were already speculating on who would deliver the "best zingers," and suggesting that he'd be happy just to keep up. "Gov. Romney — he's a good debater," Obama said. "I'm just okay."
2. Obama's day job has kept him from practicing
Team Obama says the "constraints of governing" have kept the president from doing as much debate preparation as the campaign had planned. "He's been doing some studying," said Jen Psaki, traveling press secretary for the Obama campaign, "but it is certainly less than we have anticipated because of events in the Middle East, because of his busy travel schedule... Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has been preparing earlier and with more focus than any presidential candidate in modern history. Not John F. Kennedy. Not President Bill Clinton. Not President George Bush. Not Ronald Reagan has prepared as much as he has."
3. Obama sounds like a professor, and not even a good one
The president needs to "speak directly to the families — the people who are on their couches at home, having snacks, drinking a beer, drinking a soda, whatever it is, and tuning in for the first time," Psaki says. Obama might have trouble reaching them, though, because he tends to give "longer, substantive answers" that make him sound too "professorial." And he's not even the best professor, at that — "he was the third-lowest-ranked lecturer" at the University of Chicago Law School in 1999, Psaki notes.
4. Obama could literally fall off the stage
The worst-case scenario? Psaki puts it plainly: "He could fall off the stage."
1. Even a pretend Obama "beats up" on Romney
The GOP challenger has been preparing for the televised clash by sparring in mock debates with a supporter, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), playing the part of Obama. And even the pretend Obama is a formidable foe, Romney says. "He keeps on beating me up," Romney says. "And I just go away shaking my head."
2. Everybody expects Obama to win
Romney aide Beth Myers wrote a 475-word memo praising Obama as a "universally acclaimed public speaker" with "ample rhetorical gifts." She noted that voters, by a 25-percentage point margin, expect Obama to do better on the debate stage. Obama, she notes, proved his mettle in 2008, squaring off against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and then Sen. John McCain in the general election campaign. "President Obama is a uniquely gifted speaker," Myers says, "and is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history."
3. It will be hard for Romney to counter Obama's lies
Romney has suggested he'll have a hard time balancing the need to spell out his own agenda with his desire to counter what he says is Obama's tendency to "say a lot of things that aren't accurate." That, Romney says, will be the challenge on Wednesday. "It's difficult to say, well, am I going to spend my time correcting things that aren't quite accurate? Or am I going to spend my time talking about the things I want to talk about?"
4. Mitt's a newbie. Obama's a seasoned pro
Vice presidential candidates are frequently used as a campaign's attack dog. But Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, went after his own boss to help paint Mitt as Wednesday's underdog. "Look, President Obama is a very gifted speaker," Ryan said. "The man has 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."