ANALYSIS: After weeks of practice by the candidates and posturing by their campaigns, debate day has finally arrived, and all that matters now is what President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney do and say on the stage tonight in Denver.
There is a lot on the line for both candidates, but it's clear that Romney needs not only a solid performance but a memorable one to get the attention of voters who may either be wavering or waiting to decide which candidate to support.
There's no better evidence of that than a series of polls out this morning in three of the most important battleground states -- Ohio, Florida and Virginia -- all places where the president has an edge.
New NBC News-Wall Street Journal-Marist polls in those states show Obama with the lead in Ohio, 51 percent to 43 percent over Romney among likely voters. But the two candidates are in a virtual dead heat in Florida (47 percent for Obama to 46 percent for Romney) and in Virginia (48 percent support Obama compared to 46 percent who back Romney.)
Those numbers reflect the reality of Romney's path to the 270 Electoral Votes needed to win the election. It's a narrow one, and if Ohio slips away from the GOP, all roads for the Republican presidential candidate lead through Florida, which becomes a must-win.
Voters there and in every other battleground state, including right here in Colorado, will be tuning in to tonight's first of three debates at the University of Denver.
"I would like, personally, to see him stick it to Obama more," said Joannie, an Aurora, Colorado resident who told The Note that she hoped the debate will "catapult" Romney into the final month of campaigning before Election Day. "I think this debate is going to be huge."
Joannie was one of nearly 6,000 Coloradans who turned out for Romney's rally in Denver on Monday night. It was there that the Republican candidate framed the debates as a "a conversation with the American people that will span almost an entire month."
And her comments remind us that there will actually be two audiences watching tonight: The over-saturated media types who will be fact checking, analyzing and pontificating before and after the face-off and the everyday Americans, in particular the undecideds, who are hoping for their first truly unfiltered experience of this campaign.
People like Ellie, who lives in the Denver suburbs and will be watching tonight.
"I don't want to hear them talk about 'win the debate' or 'lose the debate,'" Ellie, told The Note. "I want to hear them talk about the issues."