With Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama cramming for their first debate on Wednesday, a new CNN/ORC I
nternational poll shows the presidential race tightening into a statistical dead heat once again.
As more than 50 million people are expected to tune into the first of three head-to-head debates at 9 p.m. Eastern, Romney appears to have regained lost ground following a weekend push by running mate Paul Ryan and high-profile surrogates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Monday’s poll results reveal that half of the likely voters questioned say they would vote for Obama if the election were held today while 47 percent — within the poll’s margin of error — would choose Romney.
Moreover, the CNN Poll of Polls also shows a statistical dead heat with the president polling at 49 percent compared to Romney’s 46 percent among likely voters. The Poll of Polls is an average of five polls, which includes CNN/ORC, ABC News/Washington Post, Politico/George Washington University, and Fox News.
"That's a strong suggestion that whatever bounce President Obama received from his convention has, as expected, faded away," according to CNN Polling Director Keating Holland, whose poll of 783 likely voters was conducted between Friday and Sunday. "That's why they call them 'bounces.'"
On the all-important issue of who best would best handle the economy, the former Massachusetts governor is also locked in a statistical tie with the president, according to CNN. Romney holds an edge with respect to unemployment and the budget deficit and the president shows his muscle on issues such as Medicare and healthcare, education, and taxes.
A number of political observers believe that Romney has the most to prove when he faces off with the president over domestic issues on Wednesday.
Trailing in some recent national polls and in states that could determine the outcome of the race, the Republican nominee is feeling pressure to shift the dynamics of the Nov. 6 election with a strong performance at the University of Denver in Colorado.
It won’t be easy: Romney must defend himself, while also going on offense. He will try to reach an entire new demographic of voters who may not necessarily have been dialed into the issues thus far.
He will most likely attempt to present himself as a candidate with a clear vision to restore economic strength, and one who understands the struggles confronting most Americans.
“This is make or break for Mitt Romney because he’s behind,” says David Gergen, a Harvard University professor who has advised a bipartisan roster of four presidents. “When you’re behind, you’ve got to beat the leader. I think it’s going to be very tough.
Although his aides have played down the importance of the first debate, Romney has been telling donors for months that it will be one of three big moments to move the race in his favor. The other two — his convention speech and the selection of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan — didn’t provide the boosts in public opinion polls that the campaign had hoped for.
Romney has held extensive rehearsals, sessions that have taken place amid internal concerns that a mediocre performance could intensify Republican criticisms of his campaign and prompt donors, other party candidates and voters to distance themselves from his candidacy.
“Obama has a certain momentum,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a former presidential candidate who debated Romney during the Republican primary campaign.
Romney has been studying less on policy and more on the timing of delivering scripted zinger lines — how to attack without appearing angry, aides said.
His team expects to be confronted early in the session about his secretly-recorded “47 percent” remark, in which he described almost half the country as dependent on government checks.
He plans to respond with the same argument made in an ad released by the campaign last week, according to aides, in which the former Massachusetts governor speaks directly to the camera and reassures voters that he cares about them.
“We wouldn’t be surprised, obviously if it came up in the debate, and the governor’s prepared, obviously, to respond,” Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie told reporters on a conference call.
How Romney deals with that moment, said Gingrich, will give viewers an indication of how well he is handling the debate. “If Romney tries to explain the 47 percent line, he’s on defense,” the former House speaker said. “If he uses it to pivot and go on offense against Obama, he’s winning.”
Speaking to reporters on his campaign plane on Sept. 28, Romney said he looks forward to the opportunity to speak in an unfiltered way to voters during a race where much of the focus has been on the negative charges traded in television ads.
“I don’t know what will happen at the debates, but (I) think it will be a good chance for the president and for me to have a conversation with the American people about our respective views,” he said. “That will give people a chance to understand where we actually stand, as opposed to where our opposition thinks we stand.”
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said the debates are part of “a larger conversation” the candidate will have with voters. “I don’t think any one event is going to dramatically alter the race,” Madden told reporters traveling to Denver with Romney.
Obama has a different strategic calculation. He is weighing whether to play it safe and hold what polls suggest is a small to moderate lead or strike a more aggressive tone in an effort to expand his mandate.
In an attempt to lower expectations, aides have said the president has been too busy managing events in the Middle East to practice as much as he’d like. Obama has been rehearsing for the past few days in Henderson, Nevada.
Indeed, the CNN/ORC poll gives Obama a 53-45 percent lead over Romney on foreign policy, which will be the subject of the last debate on Oct. 22.
While Obama participated in more than 20 debates during the Democratic primary four years ago and three during the general election, his first match-up as an incumbent means he will have to defend his record, taking the blame and credit for his performance on jobs and the economy during the past four years.
The format lends itself to highlighting one of his weaknesses — a ponderous manner of answering questions, say advisers — so Obama has been practicing tightening his responses.
Democratic advisers also have been studying Romney. They said he’s overcome a weakness on display during the primary — when he’d provide a strong first answer and stumble on the follow-ups. They pointed to a Sept. 20 forum hosted by Spanish- language television station Univision, as evidence that Romney has improved in handling tough questions.
“Romney is a good debater,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist. “I don’t think his problem is his debating skills. I think his problems are his positions, many of which are hard to explain.”
Aides said the president intends to cast Romney as an ideological candidate, homing in on positions Democrats are convinced will drive a wedge between Republicans and swing voters.
His tax plan will be used to charge Romney with being at odds with the interests of middle and working-class voters, those who lack a college education. And they are preparing to highlight Romney’s record on women’s issues to remind female voters that he opposes equal-pay legislation, insurance coverage of contraception costs, and abortion rights.
Obama will also raise Romney’s work as founder and head of Boston-based Bain Capital LLC to bring attention to his personal wealth. It’s a topic the former private-equity executive didn’t always handle well in interviews and primary debates, Obama advisers said. Opponents from both parties seized upon his offer at a December debate to bet primary opponent Rick Perry $10,000, as evidence that Romney was out of touch with average voters.
Romney will also attempt to provoke his opponent. His campaign wants to create a moment that makes Obama come across as smug, a potential flaw the president revealed when he described Democratic primary opponent Hillary Clinton as “likable enough” during a 2008 debate.
The CNN/ORC poll showed the candidates in a statistical tie on likeability with 49 percent of likely voters holding a favorable impression of Romney and 50 percent having a negative impression. The president holds a 52 percent favorability rating while 48 percent of likely voters view him in an unfavorable way, which is relatively unchanged since before the two conventions.
“He does have an edgy side,” said Gergen of the president. “He needs to not confirm people’s fear that he’s got a nasty arrogant streak.”
Bloomberg news contributed to this report.
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