HENDERSON, Nev. — Nearing their first face-off, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are hunkering down for intense preparations ahead of Wednesday's presidential debate, where the GOP nominee hopes to change the trajectory of the White House race.
Obama was huddling Monday with top advisers at a desert resort in Nevada. Romney had practice planned in Massachusetts, where he also spent most of the weekend working with his debate team. The Republican challenger was then headed to Denver, the site of the first debate, later Monday for a rally and more preparation for the high-stakes event.
Five weeks from Election Day, polls show Romney trailing Obama in many of the nine states that will determine the outcome of the White House race. The three October debates give Romney one of his best opportunities to stem Obama's momentum and convince the public to back his vision for the nation's future.
“What I'm most concerned about is having a serious discussion about what we need to do to keep the country growing and restore security to hardworking Americans,” Obama said during a rally in Las Vegas Sunday night. “That is what people are going to be listening for. That's the debate you deserve.”
As the candidates prepped for a debate focused on domestic issues, Republicans were keeping up the pressure on Obama on international issues, namely his administration's handling of the attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya that led to the death of the American ambassador and three others.
Romney, in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, repeated his criticism of Obama for having called the attack and other unrest in the Middle East “bumps in the road.”
“Our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them,” Romney wrote. “We're not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies.”
Romney planned to deliver a major foreign policy speech in the coming weeks.
Both candidates were spending the days leading up to the debate in battleground states, with Romney in Colorado and Obama in Nevada. Each had just one official event planned during his stay, but they hoped their mere presence in the states would drive local media coverage.
Obama left the lakeside resort where he is prepping for the debate briefly Sunday evening for a rally at a Las Vegas high school. The 11,000-person event was focused in part on rallying Hispanics, a key source of support for the president in Nevada, and featured a performance by the popular Mexican rock band Mana.
Keeping with his campaign's efforts to lower expectations, Obama told the crowd that while he was “just OK” at debating, his opponent was “a good debater.”
Romney's team has been playing the expectations game as well, though his allies were sometimes pushing the stakes in opposite directions.
GOP running mate Paul Ryan on Sunday shot down the notion that Romney needed to have a breakthrough performance Wednesday night, saying he didn't think one event would make or break the campaign.
But New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a Romney supporter, said that after the first debate: “This whole race is going to be turned upside down.”
Romney's team has made no secret of the fact that the former Massachusetts governor has been practicing for the debates intensely for several weeks. Ohio's Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who is playing Obama in practice sessions, travels frequently with Romney and the two sometimes speak to the press together.
Obama aides, on the other hand, have kept quiet about how and when the president is practicing. Some top members of his debate team, including senior advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe, traveled with Obama to Nevada on Air Force One.
But Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is standing in for Romney, made his way to the resort in Henderson on his own.
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt in Boston contributed to this report.