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The debate before the debate

<p>&lt;p&gt;A week from today, President Obama and Mitt Romney will share a stage at the University of Denver for the first of three presidential debates.&lt;/p
The debate before the debate
The debate before the debate

A week from today, President Obama and Mitt Romney will share a stage at the University of Denver for the first of three presidential debates. But between now and then, the political world can expect a furious pre-debate debate over expectations. Consider this gem from the L.A. Times today.

President Obama has blocked out three days to prepare for the October debates, but with the constant pressures that come with one of the world's most important jobs, aides worry he may not get enough practice at the podium. [...]Obama has already canceled some debate preparation because of events in the Middle East, said Jen Psaki, his campaign press secretary. "He has had to balance the management of world events, governing, time out campaigning," she said. "He'll have less time than we anticipated to sharpen and cut down his tendency to give long, substantive answers."

Why would Obama aides leak details like this to the press? Because they desperately want to manage expectations -- if everyone expects the president to come into the debate tired and unprepared, the argument goes, he'll face less pressure to impress.

At the same time, Obama aides are also making Romney out to be a modern-day Cicero for the same reason -- if the political world expects the Republican candidate to be The Greatest Debater In The History Of Western Civilization, then the pressure will be on Romney to meet high expectations.

Naturally, the GOP campaign is playing a very similar game, and it explains why Romney has been joking about Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), playing Obama in the debate prep sessions, "cleaning Romney's clock." Indeed, Portman told NBC News yesterday, "When you think about it, [Romney] hasn't had a real debate in 10 years." That's ridiculously untrue -- Romney endured all kinds of primary debates in 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2012 -- but it's all part of the expectations game.

For what it's worth, putting aside all the rhetoric and gamesmanship, I tend to think Romney's strength as a debater is wildly underappreciated. Obama's good, but don't assume he'll cruise through these events.

The definitive, must-read piece on this was James Fallows' recent Atlantic cover story, and it helps explain why the former governor is formidable in this format. But one doesn't have to buy into Democratic spin to realize Romney is easily the best Republican debater since Reagan.

Granted, that sets the bar fairly low, given that McCain, Dole, and both Bushes struggled in this area. But I get the sense most observers simply assume that President Obama will easily out-class his challenger in their three meetings.

I'm not nearly as sure. Romney benefits from having gone through a series of debates this year; he's taken a lot of time off for prep; he's quicker than most of the recent GOP candidates; and he realizes this is his last meaningful chance to change the trajectory of the race. If Democrats expect Romney to falter in the debates, they're making a big mistake.

Update: Obama is scheduled to be in Nevada this weekend for debate prep.