DENVER - 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."
The Note's virtual political roundtable:
ABC's RICK KLEIN: At last, as we prepare to enter the first presidential debate, agreement: The 2012 election will be a choice. That's opposed, of course, to the "referendum" Team Romney has long promised, and the fact that Romney aides agree to the "choice" construct long favored by the Obama campaign is a tacit admission that a new strategy is in order. It's late for that, yet it also could be a case of perfect timing. Mitt Romney will be on equal footing with the president tonight. If he's as direct and specific as he's promising to be - and is more of both than his rival - Romney could start the comeback he's still primed to make.
ABC's AMY WALTER: The most recent polling confirms what we've been hearing from the ground. Florida and Virginia remain tight, but Ohio continues to lean strongly toward Obama. Moreover, there's also growing evidence that Wisconsin, the state that the Paul Ryan pick was supposed to put in play for Romney, is sticking with Obama. If Romney loses both Ohio and Wisconsin, he'd have to win every single other battleground state - North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada, Florida, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire - to win the Electoral College and to take the White House.
BIDEN SAYS MIDDLE CLASS 'HAS BEEN BURIED LAST FOUR YEARS.' ABC's Arlette Saenz reports from Charlotte, North Carolina: Vice President Joe Biden, criticizing Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan for a plan he said will raise taxes on the middle class, instead stepped on his campaign's message by saying the middle class has been "buried" over the last four years - the time President Obama has been in office. "This is deadly earnest. How they can justify, how they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years, how in the Lord's name can they justify raising their taxes. We've seen this movie before," Biden said to a crowd of 1,000 at the Fillmore Charlotte yesterday. The Republican National Committee and the Romney campaign quickly pounced on a statement. The RNC circulated the clip and the Romney campaign called Biden's comments a "stunning admission." http://abcn.ws/QLZ8f3
NOTED: RYAN AGREES. ABC's Shushannah Walshe reports from Iowa that Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan found a rare point of agreement today with his Democratic opponent, after Biden said that the middle class has been "buried" over the last four years. Ryan, on the last stop of his bus tour of this battleground state, said he and Mitt Romney agree that middle class Americans "are being buried by the Obama administration's economic failures." "Vice President Biden just today said that the middle class over the last four years has been quote 'buried' - we agree," Ryan said to a crowd in the parking lot of a campaign office. http://abcn.ws/RaGQl5
WHY IT MATTERS: Biden's comments are potentially more damaging than Obama's five-year-old Hampton College video. It reminds us of why this race is so tight in the first place. The middle class does feel like it is buried and they aren't at all confident that they can or will recover. And, neither candidate has given them much confidence that he has a plan - or a pathway - that will work.
TUNE IN TODAY: ABC NEWS' COVERAGE OF THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES. ABC News will provide comprehensive coverage of the three Presidential debates as well as the Vice Presidential debate, which will be moderated by ABC's Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz.
ON TV: Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos will anchor special coverage of the debates from ABC News Election Headquarters in New York from 9:00-11:00 p.m., ET on the following nights: Wednesday, October 3: Presidential Debate on Domestic Policy; Thursday, October 11: Vice Presidential Debate on Foreign and Domestic Policy; Tuesday, October 16: Presidential Town Hall on Foreign and Domestic Policy; Monday, October 22: Presidential Debate on Foreign Policy. Sawyer and Stephanopoulos will be joined by members of ABC's political team including: Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper; "ABC World News" weekend anchor David Muir, who covers the Romney campaign; Senior Political Correspondent Jonathan Karl reporting from ABC's Fact or Fiction Desk; ABC News Contributor George Will from Washington; ABC Political Analysts Matthew Dowd, Nicole Wallace, Donna Brazile, and Austan Goolsbee.
ONLINE: ABC News Digital will provide live debate coverage anchored by ABC News Political Director Amy Walter and "Good Morning America" Weekend Anchor Dan Harris on each night of the debates from 8:00-11:30 p.m., ET. The coverage will be live-streamed across several platforms including ABCNews.com, Yahoo!, Yahoo! News, GoodMorningAmerica.com, ABC News' iPad & iPhone apps, as well as on ABC News affiliate websites. ABC News Digital coverage will also serve as the official provider of the debates on YouTube's Elections Hub. ABC News Digital will have a one-hour pre-show at 8:00 p.m., ET and a one hour post-show each night of the debates, as well as a 30-minute noon show.
ON THE AIR: ABC News Radio will provide live coverage of each debate from 9:00-11:00 p.m., ET including 30 minutes of post-debate analysis. ABC News Radio Correspondent Aaron Katersky will anchor ABC News Radio's coverage from each debate site. For the Presidential Debates, ABC News Radio White House Correspondent Ann Compton will travel with the President and ABC News Radio Correspondent Vic Ratner will travel with Gov. Mitt Romney. For the Vice Presidential Debate, ABC News Radio Correspondent Steven Portnoy will travel with Vice President Joe Biden and ABC News Radio Correspondent Alex Stone will travel with Senator Paul Ryan. In addition, Katersky will anchor a one-hour preview before each debate from 8:00-9:00 p.m., ET; he will be joined by ABC News Radio political analysts and contributors Sam Donaldson, Steve Roberts and Trey Hardin.
FROM THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN: Deputy Obama campaign manager Stephanie Cutter presents the Democrats' pre-debate spin in a memo. Here's an excerpt: "Tonight, the President and Mitt Romney will debate each other for the first time. Both sides have worked to set expectations on their candidates - from the amount of time the candidates have spent preparing, to the number of 'zingers' Mitt Romney has memorized. But, the American people aren't going to pick the winner of this debate based on style or good attack lines. If they were, then the Republican Convention's "empty chair" moment should have been a great success. Instead, they're going to pick the winner on substance. They're looking for the candidates to lay out specific, concrete policies to move this country forward, not back to the same policies that created the crisis in the first place and punished the middle class. Tonight provides an opportunity for both President Obama and Mitt Romney to do that."
The Obama campaign also released a new web video this morning that, in the campaign's view, will explain "in detail what Mitt Romney is really saying in case he does spend those ninety minutes avoiding the facts and sticking instead to the same hollow plans he's shown us before." WATCH: http://bit.ly/POSB0e
FROM THE ROMNEY CAMPAIGN: The campaign announced today that "the Romney campaign and the Republican Team will hold 336 debate watch parties across 12 states. There will be 39 watch parties in Colorado, 30 in Florida, 38 in Iowa, 1 in Massachusetts, 37 in Michigan, 52 in Nevada, 9 in New Hampshire, 22 in North Carolina, 37 in Ohio, 24 in Pennsylvania, 26 in Virginia, and 21 in Wisconsin."
Also, the campaign released a new TV ad titled "Many Americans" that features Romney saying: "Too many Americans today are struggling - living paycheck to paycheck. More Americans live in poverty than when President Obama took office. We should measure our compassion by how many of our fellow Americans are able to get good paying jobs, not by how many are on welfare. My economic plan will get America back to work and strengthen the middle class." WATCH: http://mi.tt/SCa8rK
with Elizabeth Hartfield ( @LizHartfield)
POLL: LACKLUSTER POPULARITY DOGS POLITICAL PARTIES. It's no party being a political party: The Democrats, while slightly more popular than unpopular, are near their record lows, notes ABC's Greg Holyk. The Republicans are underwater. And the Tea Party political movement has slipped to its weakest favorability on record in ABC News-Washington Post polls. Those lackluster results indicate the public's continued discontent, political and economic alike. They also follow allegiance: The Democratic Party's better rating reflects the fact that more Americans consider themselves Democrats than Republicans. All told, 49 percent see the Democratic Party favorably, 42 percent unfavorably - somewhat more positive than negative, but a far cry from its recent highs. The GOP, whose allegiance has waned in the past decade, gets a negative score of 39-53 percent. And just 32 percent see the Tea Party favorably, 9 points off its peak in spring 2010. http://abcn.ws/SmLUYh
OBAMA PREPS FOR DEBATE AMIDST NEVADA HOUSING WOES. ABC's Jake Tapper reports from Las Vegas: One in 402 homes in Nevada is in foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac, making this the fifth hardest hit state in the country. As the Los Angeles Times's Kathleen Hennessey notes, the Obama campaign "has set up its 'debate camp' in something of a metaphor for the nation's economic woes - and the president's challenges." In the last few weeks, previous criticisms of the Obama administration's housing program from Neil Barofsky, the former Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, have been amplified by similarly harsh words in a new book from Sheila Bair, former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Barofsky today told ABC News that the "administration's housing programs have been an abject failure in all but one aspect, protecting the big banks." http://abcn.ws/O3BFFG
NOTED: STUDY BREAK AT THE HOOVER DAM. ABC's Devin Dwyer reports from Nevada: It could be considered the mother of all study breaks: a 30-mile trek in a presidential motorcade to visit one of greatest feats of American public works of all time. That's exactly what President Barack Obama did this afternoon, pausing from intensive debate preparations for an hour-and-a-half excursion to the Hoover Dam. "Its spectacular and I've never seen it before," Obama told reporters from a heliport overlooking the dam. "I didn't realize it was so close by." http://abcn.ws/PMHsgk
IN COLORADO, PRESIDENTIAL RACE IS A DEAD HEAT. ABC's Russell Goldman reports: The presidential race in Colorado is close. So close that it's statistically tied. In fact, it's the closest contest in any state in the country. As President Obama and Mitt Romney square off tonight for their first debate in Denver, perhaps nowhere are the stakes higher than in a handful of counties just outside the auditorium's doors. According to a recent New York Times-CBS News-Quinnipiac poll, Obama is edging out Romney 48 percent to 45 percent, a statistical dead heat, among likely Colorado voters. Those numbers reflect an almost evenly split electorate, with one-third of Colorado voters Republican, a third Democratic, and another third independent. http://abcn.ws/SxCreP
MIDDLE CLASS TO CANDIDATES: GET US BACK TO WORK, THEN LEAVE US ALONE. As Obama and Romney prepare to face off in Denver tonight, The Denver Post's Chuck Murphy reports on the mood in Colorado: "America's next president will govern a battered and shrinking middle class. In interviews across the Front Range, a bipartisan sampling of people in that income range had a message for the candidates that transcended political ideology: Help us get back to work, then stay out of our way. The percentage of Americans who fit into the middle-income category is on a four-decade long retreat. That was exacerbated in the 2000s as median family incomes shrunk in the U.S. for the first decade since the end of World War II. In Colorado, where the unemployment rate started rising in May 2007 and has stubbornly hovered around 8 percent for the past year, the number of middle-class households has grown since 2008 - but at a slower rate than the household population overall, mirroring the national middle-class shrinkage." http://bit.ly/Qq2cvp
THREE TAX REALITIES: ROMNEY V. OBAMA V. FISCAL CLIFF. When President Obama and Mitt Romney throw their first face-to-face barbs of the 2012 campaign during tonight's presidential debate, there is one topic that is sure to cause some sparks: taxes, ABC's Amy Bingham reports. Obama's theory that "everyone should pay their fair share" will face off against Romney's belief that "lower taxes and a simpler tax code" is the way to go. Complicating the conversation is the looming "fiscal cliff" of tax hikes and spending cuts that takes effect at the end of the year unless Congress - which is bitterly divided on the correct solution - intervenes. http://abcn.ws/SorD4q
PENNSYLVANIA VOTER ID LAW BLOCKED. ABC's Ariane de Vogue reports that a Pennsylvania judge ruled Tuesday that voters there will not have to produce a photo ID to vote this November. Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson issued a preliminary injunction against the state's controversial voter ID law, writing that he expected more photo IDs to have been issued to voters who need them in time for the next election. http://abcn.ws/PL6MTQ
PAUL RYAN'S WIFE RE-VISITS CHILDHOOD MEMORIES IN IOWA. The Des Moines Register's Jennifer Jacobs reports: "GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's two-day Iowa bus tour through four working-class towns along the Mississippi River became a rolling family reunion on Monday and Tuesday.?Packed on the campaign bus, telling old family stories, were many of Janna Ryan's relatives from Clinton, New Hampton, Le Claire and Muscatine, as well as out-of-state relatives, including her father, Dan Little of Oklahoma and her uncle Paul Petersen of California. The Iowa homecoming marked the first time they'd been together on the campaign trail. 'Iowa's extra special because of our family connection,' Janna Ryan said in an interview, the second of the campaign so far; the other was with People magazine with her husband. 'My dad is cute because he basically wants to go full time on the road he's so excited to be here in Iowa.'" http://dmreg.co/SBkUhl
ANN ROMNEY TAKES BIGGER ROLE. The New York Times' Michael Barbaro, Ashley Parker and Sheryl Gay Stolberg report: "Once in the background, more cheerleader than consultant, Mrs. Romney is asserting herself with new force as the campaign enters its final weeks, publicly scolding Republicans who second-guess her husband and privately pushing for ways to recast him in her own terms. She regularly sits in on high-level strategy sessions, weighs in with candid opinions for her husband and calls senior advisers to share her views, according to campaign aides, who are reluctant to discuss her private conversations." http://nyti.ms/Whnr53
REPUBLICANS IN CLOSE SENATE RACES KEEP ROMNEY AT DISTANCE. "From Boston to Honolulu, Senate Republican candidates are putting some space between themselves and their nominee as President Barack Obama opens a lead in national and state polls," writes Bloomberg's Kathleen Hunter. "In Connecticut, Linda McMahon stayed away from Sept. 30 fundraisers headlined by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. In Nevada, U.S. Representative Dean Heller skipped a chance to share the stage with Romney at a Sept. 21 rally at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In a North Dakota television ad, Republican Senator Rick Berg says he will 'serve as a check on Obama's failed policies,' a phrase that skips past Election Day and Romney's chances of winning. Only one Republican in a competitive Senate race has aired a campaign ad in which he appears alongside Romney: Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock." http://bloom.bg/OC1YUT
IN THE NOTE'S INBOX:
-MOVE ON PLANS DEBATE BRACKETING. It's debate day and MoveOn.org Political Action is launching its fact-checking 2012 Debate Dashboard. The group announces: "Along with progressive think tanks Think Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund, MoveOn will fact check the presidential debate in real-time to debunk any lies told by GOP nominee Mitt Romney. MoveOn's members will share facts via Twitter using the hashtags #DebateWatch and #MittLies." The new dashboard will be live at 9p.m. ET on MoveOn.org.
-BROWN CAMPAIGN RELEASES NEW WEB AD: "SPORTS LEGENDS FOR SCOTT." With 34 days to go until Election Day in Massachusetts, GOP candidate Scott Brown's campaign is appealing to sports fans in the commonwealth. One day after receiving the endorsement of Boston Celtics guard Bob Cousy, the Brown campaign is releasing a new web video featuring Celtics stars and Patriots stars supporting Brown, including Cousy, Dave Cowens and JoJo White of the Celtics and for the football fans, Drew Bledsoe, Steve DeOssie and Fred Smerlas. WATCH: http://bit.ly/UEI1K3
@kakukowski : . @Reince op-ed in the Denver Post: Obama Won't Debate The Issues http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_21682461/priebus …
@woodhouseb : Love this BS false equivalence: WaPo reported story of Romney assaulting a kid w/scissors so re-reporting 5 year old video is fine.
@TonyFratto : Comparing job growth to expectations is a fun parlor game, but as a comment on the economy it's fundamentally stupid.
with ABC's Joanna Suarez
-President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will face off in the first presidential debate in Denver, Colorado beginning at 9 p.m. ET.
-Vice President Joe Biden will address Obama campaign watch parties online immediately following the debate.
-Paul Ryan is in Virginia for debate preparation, with no public events.
-First Lady Michelle Obama will address supporters in Reno, Nevada before attending the debate
-Ann Romney will also attend the debate, alongside four of her sons.
-Former President Bill Clinton hits the campaign trail for President Obama in New Hampshire.
-Senator Marco Rubio will rally supporters in Denver, CO
-Senator John McCain will hold a meet and greet in Tallahassee, Florida.
Check out The Note's Futures Calendar : http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV