DENVER – Mitt Romney spent much of Tuesday near his hotel here, about 20 minutes from Wednesday night’s debate stage. President Obama was 800 miles away, just outside Las Vegas. Both devoted much of the day to practicing for an event that could tip the race for the White House.
The two candidates will face off on the University of Denver campus for the first of three debates. Romney needs to shift the trajectory of the race, and soon; early balloting has already started in some places, and polls show crucial swing states moving in Obama’s direction.
The 90-minute debate, which will air on all the network television stations at 9 p.m., will be moderated by Jim Lehrer, executive editor of PBS’ NewsHour. It is centered on domestic policy, which could allow Romney to hammer away at what has been, to varying degrees, the core issue for his campaign: Obama’s handling of the economy.
Another likely topic Wednesday night is immigration. Romney appeared to moderate his stance this week.
Romney in the past has criticized Obama’s temporary clemency for young illegal immigrants as an inadequate congressional end-around, but in an interview published Tuesday he said for the first time that he would not revoke the reprieves from deportation if he’s elected.
Evidence of Romney’s trouble in swing states came on Monday, when the Granite State poll in New Hampshire put Obama ahead by 15 points. Romney’s campaign and his supporters are hoping that he can use not only the debate, but also an updated monthly jobs report on Friday morning, to turn such results around.
“Now we’re entering what we call the debate and choice phase of this campaign,” Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, told a talk radio audience in Milwaukee. “People are going to focus on this. The debates are going to give us a chance to highlight our differences, and we’re entering the phase where we get to frame the choice of this election.”
Obama enters the debate in a more comfortable situation, mostly needing to survive without making any major mistakes. His advisers have been trying to discourage him from giving long-winded answers that could make him appear to be lecturing Romney.
Some Republicans got bad news on Tuesday when a Pennsylvania judge blocked a law that would require voters to show identification before they vote.
Supporters of the law, passed in March by a Republican-led legislature, said it would prevent voter fraud, even though no cases of in-person fraud have been cited.
Critics said it would suppress the vote, particularly among minorities who tend to vote more Democratic and may have a harder time obtaining the proper identification.
Romney arrived in Denver Monday night. After being endorsed by former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway – who some with Romney grumbled used to beat the Patriots too much for their liking – Romney spoke to supporters in an aircraft museum and outlined some of the themes for the debate.
“This economy is not in recovery. We’re not seeing the real recovery,” Romney said. “The president’s policies have not worked. He doesn’t get that. He doesn’t understand that. We must get America growing again with a strong economy.”
He said that he hoped the debate would offer voters a chance to see his vision for America.
“There’s going to be all the scoring of winning and losing and, you know, in my view, it’s not so much winning and losing or even the people themselves — the president and myself,” Romney said. “It’s about something bigger than that. These debates are an opportunity for each of us to describe the pathway forward for America that we would choose.”
Those who have prepared for debates against Romney in the past said they viewed Romney as a strong and able debater, but also one who could be knocked off his stride when met with aggression.
It was when Rick Perry was pointedly critical of Romney’s health care position that Romney had one of his biggest debate gaffes of the primary, when he extended his hand and said, “Ten thousand bucks? Ten thousand dollar bet?”
The direct approach, pressing Romney and then knocking him off balance, was a tactic those around Senator Edward M. Kennedy first jumped on nearly two decades ago.
Jeff Robbins, who played Romney in mock debates against 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Shannon O’Brien, closely watched those early Romney debates and said he tried to channel an intellectually adept candidate.
“It would have been inappropriate for me to assume a style of nastiness or punching below the belt,” said Robbins. “That is not his makeup, at least in terms of speaking.”
Those who have faced Obama in the past have noted that he can be long-winded, and can attempt to “filibuster” in some of his answers.
During the 2008 debates, Brett O’Donnell, who was Senator John McCain’s debate coach, also reportedly noted Obama’s tendency to look directly at his opponent when attacking.
On the issue of deportation reprieves, Romney told the Denver Post he would not take them away from people who received them before he took office and would not issue new ones. But that could mean that thousands of pending exemptions could be denied if they are not resolved before Jan. 20, when Romney would be inaugurated.
And approval of those cases is moving slowly; the Obama administration reported Tuesday that of 82,000 applications for exemptions, just 29 had been approved by Sept. 13.
Romney Monday also offered slightly more details to his tax plan, laying out one scenario with a Denver television station. Romney has previously said he would lower tax rates while closing loopholes and deductions, but he has repeatedly refused to disclose any specifics on which loopholes.
‘‘As an option you could say everybody’s going to get up to a $17,000 deduction; and you could use your charitable deduction, your home mortgage deduction, or others — your health care deduction, and you can fill that bucket, if you will, that $17,000 bucket that way,” Romney told Fox affiliate KDVR. ‘‘And higher-income people might have a lower number.’’
At an event in Charlotte, N.C., Vice President Joe Biden criticized Republican tax proposals but, in a comment quickly seized on by Romney’s campaign, said the middle class had been “buried the last four years.” That includes most of Obama’s term.
Romney’s campaign immediately seized upon the comment, saying they agreed that the middle class had been “buried.”Globe correspondent Callum Borchers contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.