(Reuters) - Republican candidate Mitt Romney is under pressure to produce a strong performance on Wednesday evening at his first face-to-face debate with President Barack Obama, amid signs Romney may be gaining some ground in the race for the White House.
The 90-minute encounter offers the chance to reach more than 60 million people on television, a far greater audience than watched either candidate speak at the Democratic and Republican conventions.
While that could pay dividends in attracting undecided voters, there is also the risk of a major mistake that could overshadow the last five weeks before the November 6 election.
Running behind in the polls, Romney is more in need of a victory than Obama at the University of Denver, the first of three such face-offs scheduled in the next four weeks.
"I think he's got to have a pretty convincing win," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "He's had a bad few weeks and he needs to change the narrative of the campaign."
The Republican was damaged by a secretly taped video from a private fundraiser in which he said 47 percent of voters are dependent on government and unlikely to support him. It was only one of several recent stumbles by the former Massachusetts governor in his second presidential bid.
Most polls show Obama maintaining a lead over Romney, although an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released on Tuesday showed Obama edging Romney by just three points among likely voters, at 49 percent to 46 percent. That's down from five points in the same survey two weeks earlier.
An NPR poll on Wednesday showed Obama leading 51-44 percent among likely voters.
In Denver, Romney needs not only to repair some of the damage, he must also raise questions about Obama's handling of the U.S. economy and explain how his own plan would create more jobs and cut the budget deficit.
The debate, which will focus on domestic issues, will be moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS and starts at 9 p.m. EDT (0100 GMT).
On the eve of the event, Romney supporters re-released video from a 2007 speech by then-Senator Barack Obama in which he criticized the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated African-American areas of the city of New Orleans.
Conservative media outlets said the tape showed the first black U.S. president trying to fuel racial fires. But others said the speech was widely reported at the time and called the tape a bid to deflect attention from policy ahead of the debate.
Romney must get through the debate without losing his cool and without appearing disrespectful to Obama, who many Americans like personally despite his struggle to create jobs. The often robotic Republican could also do with showing some personality to make voters feel more comfortable with him.
"Americans who are thinking about voting for Romney need to hear from him about how he would change the country for the better," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "They're leaning toward the devil they know, which is President Obama. Romney has to knock it out of the park by showing the contrast between himself and Obama."
The Democrat has the challenge of answering why Americans should consider themselves better off than four years ago, a key measure in every presidential election. He needs to explain what he would do to boost job creation in a second term.
With the U.S. jobless rate above 8 percent for 43 straight months, the economy is the top priority for voters. The Obama camp notes that the president inherited a tough economy from his Republican predecessor George W. Bush, and that things have improved, if slowly.
Vice President Joe Biden appeared to veer from that script when he told a campaign rally on Tuesday that the middle class "has been buried the last four years," just longer than Obama's time in the White House.
The Obama campaign later underscored that Biden was referring to the ill-effects left over from Bush's policies, but Romney's campaign seized upon the comment and called it a "stunning admission.
So far, voters have seemed willing to cede that Obama was dealt a difficult economic situation, but they are looking for a clear way out of the doldrums.
"He's got to reassure people who like him that it's OK to vote for him again," said Yepsen. "I think Americans like the man; they're a little bit concerned about the job he's done. And he's got to bring them back home."
Obama is considered far more likable than Romney and leads Romney in opinion polls in many of the battleground states, such as Ohio and New Hampshire, where the election will be decided.
Obama also has a leg-up on a broad array of issues. A series of Reuters/Ipsos tracking polls through Sunday indicated that Obama has small leads over Romney on separate questions about which candidate would best handle the economy and who could create more jobs, even though Romney has made his business experience as the head of a private equity firm the centerpiece of his campaign.
LOOKING FOR NEW IDEAS
So far, Obama has offered little in the way of a second-term agenda beyond more of the same policies, amid rising debt, budget deficits and increasingly expensive entitlement programs. His first term has been marked by fierce partisan battles that have frozen Washington into political gridlock.
Obama's campaign has cast Romney as a wealthy elitist who is out of touch with the plight of everyday Americans, stashes his $250 million fortune in offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes, "flip-flops" his political positions depending on his audience, and campaigns by attacking Obama rather than offering his own ideas for addressing the country's problems.
Romney late Tuesday gave one policy hint, giving a bit of detail on how he would achieve his pledge of giving taxpayers 20-percent cut in income tax rates. He said in a Denver television interview he was considering capping tax deductions at $17,000 for most taxpayers as one way to pay for his plan.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington and John Whitesides in Denver; Writing by Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen)