(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)
BEFORE YOU GO
10/04/2012 1:17 AM EDT
Maryland Governor Corrects Romney Debate Line
@ GovernorOMalley :
Hey, Governor @MittRomney, Maryland schools are #1 and have been for the last four years in a row. #Debates
10/04/2012 1:06 AM EDT
Romney Cherrypicks CBO Report On Loss Of Job-Based Health Insurance
Mitt Romney made a damning charge against President Barack Obama's health care reform law during Wednesday's debate, designed to give pause to the more than 150 million Americans who get health insurance through work.
Citing the Congressional Budget Office, Romney said, "up to 20 million people will lose their insurance as Obamacare goes into effect next year."
While it's true that a March CBO report said it's possible that many people may move from job-based health insurance to some other form other coverage, Romney misrepresented the report's conclusions.
The CBO wrote in a March analysis that it expects the Affordable Care Act "will lead to a small reduction in the number of people receiving employment-based health insurance."
According to the budget office, 3 million to 5 million people will switch from job-based health insurance each year from 2019 through 2022. This would break Obama's old promise that "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it," but it's not as dire as Romney suggested.
The health care reform law will extend health insurance coverage to 30 million people who otherwise would be uninsured, according to a separate CBO analysis published in July.
So where did Romney get the 20 million figure? The CBO crunched the numbers under several other scenarios, acknowledging that "there is clearly a tremendous amount of uncertainty about how employers and employees will respond to the set of opportunities and incentives under that legislation."
Under those alternative calculations the CBO concluded that as many as 20 million fewer people will get health insurance at work in 2019 alone -- but that as many as 3 million more would gain coverage through their jobs.
Romney cited a survey in 2011 by the consulting company McKinsey & Co. to support his contention. The study said 30 percent of businesses "are anticipating dropping people from coverage," Romney said.
The White House pushed back against McKinsey's findings at the time, noting that other analyses by organizations such as the RAND Corp. haven't found large numbers of companies saying they plan to drop coverage.
The health care reform law imposes new requirements on businesses, adding new incentives and disincentives. Companies with at least 50 full-time workers have to offer health benefits or pay a penalty. Some employers may find they can save money by canceling company health benefits. Workers would then obtain health insurance on the law's regulated exchange marketplaces in their states. Some companies may increase wages to compensate for the lost benefits.
Most big companies already provide health benefits and will continue doing so, in part because fringe benefits are tax-exempt and in part because they help attract and retain employees. Companies may also use more part-time workers or contractors to avoid the law's requirements, so those individuals would have to find their own plans on the exchanges or through Medicaid.
-- Jeffrey Young
10/04/2012 12:10 AM EDT
Mitt Romney Middle-Income Tax Cut Promise Contradicts Recent Claim
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney contradicted his recent statements when he said he would push for middle-class tax relief during the first presidential debate.
“My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class,” Romney said during the debate. “Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300 [under President Barack Obama]. This is a -- this is a tax in and of itself. I'll call it the economy tax. It's been crushing.”
The statement contrasts with comments the Republican nominee made last month, when he told members of an Ohio audience they should not “be expecting a huge cut in taxes because I'm also going to lower deductions and exemptions,” as reported by HuffPost’s Sam Stein.
Median annual income has dropped nearly 5 percent since the recovery began in June 2009, according to a recent study, a significant enough decline to lead Vice President Joe Biden to say earlier this week that the middle class had been "buried" during the Obama administration's first term.
Obama has said he would sign a one-year extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the first $250,000 of U.S. income.
-- Maxwell Strachan
10/04/2012 12:03 AM EDT
Small Business Majority Challenges Romney's Small Business Claims
After the debate, the Small Business Majority released a statement challenging some of Gov. Mitt Romney's claims about small business:
A key point in the debate focused on whether small businesses would be impacted if tax cuts for high-income earners were allowed to expire at the end of the year. In fact, only 3 percent of small businesses would be affected if the “Bush tax cuts” expired, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. What’s more, many of those businesses would hardly be considered small by anyone’s standards: the committee found many of them would have revenues of more than $50 million a year.
The small businesses that line Main Street, that employ and service our local communities, are not the ones who would benefit from these cuts. And we know they don’t support extending the cuts, either. Our national polling found the majority of small businesses agree the tax cuts should lapse. What’s more, our poll showed only 3 percent of respondents had annual household income above $250,000.
The candidates also talked about healthcare reform and clean energy—both of which are important issues for small businesses. Our polling showed small business support for the Affordable Care Act when the majority said they didn’t think the Supreme Court should overturn it. They also see economic opportunities when it comes to clean energy: 71 percent of poll respondents believe it’s important that government continues to invest in clean energy."
The Small Business Majority is a non-partisan but left-leaning small-business polling and research organization, according to The New York Times.
-- Janell Ross
10/03/2012 11:47 PM EDT
Santorum Weighs In
@ RickSantorum :
Romney rocked it!
10/03/2012 11:43 PM EDT
'Mitt Romney Lied'
@ ByronTau :
DCCC: "Mitt Romney lied. On taxes. On Medicare. On Wall Street reform. On Obamacare."
10/03/2012 11:43 PM EDT
CNN Poll Shows Romney Debate Victory
Mitt Romney scored a victory among debate-watching registered voters, according to a new CNN poll.
Sixty-seven percent of those voters surveyed by CNN said they thought Romney won the debate, while only 25 percent said they thought President Barack Obama won. Thirty-five percent of respondents said they were more likely to vote for Romney after watching the debate, 18 percent for Obama and 47 percent said neither.
Romney also scored well on other measures: Fifty-five percent of respondents said they thought Romney would do a better job handling the economy, while 43 percent said they thought Obama would. Romney also scored better on who debate-watchers thought would be a stronger leader, 58 percent to 43 percent.
-- Emily Swanson
10/03/2012 11:31 PM EDT
White House Press Pool Reporters Mistakenly Pile Into Romney Van
White House press pool reporters got into the wrong motorcade, and only discovered they were in a Romney van when the driver praised the former Massachusetts governor's debate performance.
From the pool report of AFP's Stephen Collinson:
In an amusing moment, poolers were sitting in the Press One van outside the debate hall and the driver said 'I think that Romney did real good.' There was a moment of baffled silence, before our steno , Bec, put two and two together and said 'guys we are in the Romney van.' Blind panic then ensued as we piled out the van and sprinted towards the correct motorcade, which was parked right in front of Romney’s. Disaster was narrowly averted.
-- Michael McAuliff
10/03/2012 11:28 PM EDT
Romney Lumps Elderly, Poor Together
Mitt Romney skipped over the thorny problem of dealing with the majority of elderly Americans who need Medicaid to pay for nursing home care, lumping their end-of-life struggles in with caring for the poor and promising a federal payment rate that's unlikely to keep up with their needs.
"I would like to take the Medicaid dollars, give them to the states, and say to the states you're going to get what you got last year, plus inflation, plus 1 percent, and you're going to manage your care for your poor in the way you think best," Romney said, referring to a plan that outside analysts estimate would cut $1.4 trillion from Medicaid over 10 years.
"I remember as a governor, when this idea was floated by [then-Wisconsin Gov.] Tommy Thompson, governors, Republican and Democrat, said please let us do that," Romney said. "We can care for our own poor in so much better and more effective a way than having the federal government how to care for our poor."
But that plan includes not just people traditionally thought of as poor. Nearly two-thirds of Americans who need nursing home care -- including in their own homes -- depend on Medicaid to pay for it because it's so expensive. Romney didn't seem to be thinking of them when he defended his plan to replace the current Medicaid system with block grants.
The problem with inflation plus 1 percent is that inflation for long-term nursing care is often more expensive than that, and states would have to figure out how to pay for the growing difference over time.
-- Michael McAuliff