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Raising expectations: Obama camp confident Romney will lose debate

No matter how well he prepares, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won’t be able to shake up the White House race in the first debate with President Barack Obama today because he can’t win on issues important to the middle class, a top Obama campaign strategist said Tuesday.

In an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, David Axelrod said Romney clearly is a practiced debater and has done more preparation than Obama in the past few months. But he said the debates aren’t likely to change the trajectory of the race with most polls showing the president edging out his Republican challenger in Nevada and nationwide.

“I understand why they want to think of this as a game-changer,” Axelrod said in a telephone interview. “And I have no doubt that he’s going to do well. Less preparation went into the invasion of Normandy than into these debates he’s been practicing for since June.”

“I think he’ll have a good night tomorrow night,” Axelrod added. “But this isn’t about one night. It’s about a lifetime of where you’ve been and what positions you’ve been in. … And the president has a record of advocacy on behalf of middle class issues.”

Romney, on the other hand, barely mentioned the middle class in the series of GOP presidential debates during the primary season, Axelrod said, and has focused more on protecting the rich. Romney wants to extend Bush-era tax cuts for everybody while Obama wants to end them for households making $250,000 or more.

“That’s not going to change tomorrow night,” Axelrod said of Romney positions that the Obama campaign maintains aren’t friendly to the middle class. “They can repackage him. They can tweak him. But I think the American people are looking for something deeper. They’ll make the judgment.”

The Romney campaign is hoping a sharp debate performance in Denver and in the next two October face-offs will underline his campaign message that Obama has failed to revive the economy as promised, giving the challenger much-needed momentum heading into the Nov. 6 election.

In Nevada, the unemployment rate is 12.1 percent, the highest in the nation, making the Obama-Romney race here a bellwether on whether the economic argument against the president will work.

Obama was practicing for the debate while spending three days at the Westin Lake Las Vegas resort in Henderson.

Tuesday afternoon, Obama visited Hoover Dam for the first time. His motorcade stopped at a helipad on the lower portal road at 1:18 p.m. to view the dam under a cloudless sky, according to pool reports filed by accompanying journalists.

Obama, dressed in a blue and white checkered shirt with sleeves rolled up and khaki slacks, got out of his car to take a look and get information from Hoover Dam staffers. He was greeted by Rob Skordas, assistant dam manager for history and operational logistics, and Janel Brawner-Potucek of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Returning to his vehicle, Obama said he wanted to see the dam “because it’s spectacular. And I’ve never seen it before. I didn’t realize it was so close by.”

The dam is about 15 miles from Lake Las Vegas.

The Obama campaign has spent days leading up to the debate downplaying expectations for the president’s performance and complimenting Romney on his debate style. Yet Axelrod and Obama’s top advisers clearly believe that the president will hold his own and that time is running out for the former governor of Massachusetts to gain the upper hand in key battleground states.

Early voting starts Oct. 20 in a state where more than half of the electorate casts ballots before the Nov. 6 election.

Axelrod said he is pleased Democrats have made big voter registration gains in Nevada, giving the party an advantage of more than 70,000 voters over registered Republicans. Romney is behind Obama in recent polls by several points, although Romney is edging out the president among independents.

Axelrod said Obama and Democrats must work hard through Election Day to ensure victory.

“We are going to treat this like we’re behind, and we’re going to run like we’re behind,” Axelrod said. “And the last thing we’re going to do is take any state for granted. … We have a task ahead of us to finish the job. At the end of the day, there are more Nevadans who understand the president is on their side. … I believe the conditions are ripe for us to win.”

Axelrod discounted Republican predictions that Romney can win the debates like Ronald Reagan did in 1980 against Jimmy Carter and come from behind to win. Early voting makes it harder for a challenger to beat an incumbent president who is leading in the polls, the strategist said.

“One thing that changed since 1980 is early voting,” Axelrod said. “An election doesn’t happen on one day. It happens over a period of weeks. Where we are today and the next few weeks is important.”

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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