COLUMBUS, Ohio — 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.

___

Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Birth Certificate -- "Born In The USA"

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/27/obama-birth-certificate-r_n_854248.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(April 27, 2011) --</strong></a> The White House <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/04/27/president-obamas-long-form-birth-certificate" target="_hplink">released</a> President Barack Obama's "long form" birth certificate, adding documentation to a longstanding discussion over his ability to serve as commander in chief. "We do not have time for this kind of silliness," Obama said. "We have better stuff to do. I have got better stuff to do. We have got big problems to solve." (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Osama Bin Laden Killed -- "Tonight, Tonight"

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/01/osama-bin-laden-dead-killed_n_856091.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(May 1, 2011)</strong></a> -- In a televised address to the nation, Obama announces that Osama bin Laden is dead. His death was the result of a U.S. operation launched today in Abbottabad, Pakistan, against a compound where bin Laden was believed to be hiding. "[T]oday's achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people," Obama proclaimed. (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

  • Debt Ceiling Deal -- "Gold On The Ceiling"

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/02/obama-debt-ceiling-deal-jobs_n_916285.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(Aug. 2, 2011) --</strong></a> After the Senate passed a bill to raise the debt limit, Obama pleaded with Congress to shift their attention to jobs. "I will urge them to immediately take some steps -- bipartisan, common-sense steps -- that will make a difference; that will create a climate where businesses can hire, where folks have more money in their pockets to spend, where people who are out of work can find good jobs," he said. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

  • Don't Ask Don't Tell -- "Don't Stop Believin'"

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/20/barack-obama-dont-ask-dont-tell-repeal-statement_n_971662.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(Sept. 20, 2011) --</strong></a> As the ban on gays serving in the military came to an end, Obama hailed the fresh start, celebrating the fact that "patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love." (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

  • Iraq War To End -- "Homeward Bound"

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/21/obama-iraq-troop-withdrawal_n_1024108.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(Oct. 21, 2011) --</strong></a> Obama announced that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by 2011, fulfilling a promise that dated back to his campaign. "As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end," Obama said. "So today I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year." (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Singing Al Green's "Let's Stay Together"

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/20/obama-al-green-apollo-theater_n_1218070.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(Jan. 20, 2012) --</strong></a> During a fundraiser at Harlem's historic Apollo Theater, Obama delivered a memorable musical message to his donors. With Rev. Al Green in attendance, Obama sang part of Green's hit song "Let's Stay Together," drawing strong applause from the crowd.

  • Singing Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago"

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/21/obama-sings-sweet-home-chicago_n_1292576.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(Feb. 21, 2012) --</strong></a> Days after his Al Green rendition, Obama flexed his vocal chords again with a hometown favorite. The East Room of the White House had its blues fix filled when the president started swinging "Sweet Home Chicago."

  • Gay Marriage -- "Can't Fight This Feeling"

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/09/obama-gay-marriage_n_1503245.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(May 9, 2012) --</strong></a> In a sit-down interview with ABC's Robin Roberts, Obama explained his evolution on the issue, affirming his support for gay marriage. "[A]t a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married," he said.

  • Immigration -- "With Arms Wide Open"

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/15/obama-immigration-order-deportation-dream-act_n_1599658.html " target="_hplink"><strong>(June 15, 2012) --</strong></a> The Obama administration addressed America's immigration issue, announcing that it will halt deportations and grant work permits to young individuals eligible for Dream-Act benefits. "They pledge allegiance to our flag," Obama said. "They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper."(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

  • Health Care Reform -- "Beautiful Day"

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/28/supreme-court-health-care-decision_n_1585131.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(June 28, 2012) --</strong></a> After weeks of speculation that Obama's signature piece of legislation could be overturned, the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate is constitutional. "It should be pretty clear that I didn't do this because it's good politics," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/28/obama-health-care-ruling_n_1632953.html" target="_hplink">Obama said</a>. "I did it because it's good for the country." (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)