MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
President Obama and Mitt Romney had no public events on their campaign schedules today. They're both busy preparing for tomorrow's big event: a prime-time debate that could be one of their last opportunities to sway undecided voters. Yesterday, we heard from NPR's Ari Shapiro about Mitt Romney's preparations. And today, we get a scouting report on President Obama from NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama has spent the last couple of days hold up in a lake-front resort outside Las Vegas. There's a golf course and palm tree-lined swimming pool. But as Mr. Obama told volunteers at a local campaign office, his staff hasn't allowed much time for recreation.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Basically, they're keeping me indoors all the time. It's a drag.
OBAMA: They're making me do my homework.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama faces a big test tomorrow night when he squares off for the first time against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Political communications expert Mitchell McKinney of the University of Missouri says Mr. Obama's debate experience from 2008 shows practice does make a difference.
MITCHELL MCKINNEY: Early on in his primary debates, he was tagged quite often with this somewhat halting, you know, the charitable description was the more professorial approach, sometimes wonkish. He then was able to sharpen his message a bit by the time he got to the end of that primary cycle, and then I think that carried over very well with his debates with John McCain.
HORSLEY: But that was four years ago, and Obama staffers have tried to lower expectations for their candidate by painting the president as woefully out of practice. Campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki says, while Mitt Romney has spent much of the last year debating primary opponents, Mr. Obama has been busy running the country.
JEN PSAKI: He has had less time to prepare than we anticipated. It's difficult to schedule significant blocks of time when you're the president, regardless of your party. That's been challenging.
HORSLEY: Over the last couple of days, the campaign has blocked out some time, and Mr. Obama has been sparring with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry playing the role of Romney. Psaki says one of the big challenges is keeping the president's wordiness in check.
PSAKI: He has a tendency to give longer, substantive answers. It's just his nature. That's something clearly we're working on. And the format of the debate makes that a little bit more difficult.
HORSLEY: For all the hand-wringing about long-windedness, though, it was a short answer that caused the most grief for Mr. Obama back in 2008. It came in this exchange with Hillary Clinton.
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SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON: He's very likeable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad.
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: You're likeable enough, Hillary. No doubt.
CLINTON: You know - thank you.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama has to guard against that kind of snarkiness and condescension tomorrow night. While the president has a modest lead in the polls, history suggests challengers have a built-in advantage in the first debate. They tend to benefit from the equalizing effect of simply sharing a platform with the leader of the free world. Mr. Obama's supporters are worried about that. Romney supporters are banking on it. Republican Governor Chris Christie told NBC's David Gregory he thinks it will upend the presidential contest.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: Mitt Romney is going to be standing on the same stage as the president of the United States. And I am telling you, David, come Thursday morning, the entire narrative of this race is going to change.
HORSLEY: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and John Kerry all got a boost from their first debate when challenging a sitting president. Romney's camp especially likes the 1980 example. Communications expert McKinney says Reagan's strong debate performance that year helped seal Jimmy Carter's fate.
MCKINNEY: Viewers came away from that thinking that Carter seemed a bit under siege, defeatist, defensive. And Reagan carried himself very well in terms of projecting strength that he could, yes, handle the job.
HORSLEY: McKinney says the challenge for Mr. Obama tomorrow is to defend his record without sounding defensive and to make the case that his economic policies are working without seeming insensitive to the millions of Americans who are still struggling.
MCKINNEY: That dynamic can be a little tricky of empathizing, understanding, recognizing hard times, but the message can't be one of gloom and doom for the incumbent. There has to be hope.
HORSLEY: Calibrating optimism with harsh reality is nothing new for Mr. Obama. He's been practicing that message for more than three and a half years. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.