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Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney laughs as he hands out beef jerky press his campaign plane Friday

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney laughs as he hands out beef jerky to the press on his campaign plane, Friday, Sept. 28, 2012, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:45AM

WASHINGTON — Heading toward the first debate, David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s top strategist, said Mitt Romney will be a “prepared, disciplined and aggressive debater” in a Friday memo.

Beth Myers, a senior adviser to Romney, praised Obama “as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history” in her Thursday pre-debate memo.

Axelrod and Myers — in arguing who is the bigger underdog before the first debate Wednesday in Denver — were engaging in what is now a ritual: lowering expectations.

But there is an answer as to who is the underdog: It is Romney because he takes to the stage at the University of Denver with a crushing challenge: he needs to jump-start his campaign.

Despite a lagging economy — which Romney’s team always figured would doom Obama’s chances for a second term — polls show the president is building solid leads in every battleground state.

Romney also has the enormous disadvantage of debating a president who daily for years has been dealing with — in real life — Congress, world leaders and a variety of incredibly complex subjects Romney only has been studying.

Secret video won’t vanish

Any Romney turnaround strategy requires strong debate performances, which includes overcoming the damage from that secret Florida fund-raising video showing him seemingly disparaging 47 percent of the voters.

Then there are the intangibles, not insignificant for Romney who has struggled to connect with people. A reason that secret videotape was so harmful: it fed into the narrative that Romney is so rich he does not relate to everyday people.

Beyond any issue or attack on Obama, Romney needs to show he is capable of connecting at a human level.

Obama is under pressure to avoid self-inflicted wounds. Romney’s team spent the summer and the Republican convention feeding off of Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark now, in hindsight, an ill-advised and needless rhetorical flourish.

Keeping it short, direct and parse-proof is no small task for Obama, who has not been forced to rein in his verbosity since Oct. 15, 2008, his third and final debate with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

And, as Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer noted Friday in a memo, unlike 2008 — with no incumbent running — Obama “goes into the debates with a record.”

Three debates

There are also three debates in the 2012 race for the White House, each 90 minutes. Denver — on Obama’s 20th wedding anniversary — is followed by debates Oct. 16 on Long Island, near New York and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. — just a few miles from the home where that secret Romney video was shot.

Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan face off Oct. 11 in Kentucky.

Denver is supposed to deal with domestic policy; the solo moderator is Jim Lehrer, the executive director of the PBS “NewsHour.” Subject to change if there are news developments, as of Friday the six, 15-minute segments will focus on the economy, health care, the role of government and governing.

Whether Lehrer asks or not, Obama and Romney each could benefit from persuasive arguments about their vision for the future of Medicare, a topic where Romney is on the defensive.

Medicare jumped on the front burner last month, when Romney tapped Ryan, who has proposed revamping Medicare, as his running mate.

A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Thursday showed that voters in the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Virginia trusted Obama over Romney when it comes to the health insurance program covering all seniors in the U.S.

Since 1988, all general election debates have been organized by the nonprofit, bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Chicago attorney Newton Minow sits on the CPD board.

While the commission sponsors the debates, a variety of details, such as whether the rivals stand or sit and what the stage looks like, are negotiated by the campaigns — in 2012, it’s the top lawyers for the campaigns, Bob Bauer for Obama and Ben Ginsberg for Romney.

Debates small — but big

The debates won’t change a lot of minds. A Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll released Thursday showed that more than 92 percent of likely voters in battleground Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania are decided.

But not a lot of minds need to be changed to determine the November outcome. The 2012 race for some time has been about a small number of undecided voters in swing states — who might just now be starting to pay attention.

That Quinnipiac poll found that likely voters will be tuning in: 91 percent in Florida, 87 percent in Ohio and 86 percent in Pennsylvania plan on watching the upcoming debates.

Both Romney and Obama have been practicing for the debates; Obama motorcaded to the Democratic National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill Friday for a prep session.

Obama heads to battleground Nevada on Sunday for three days of intensive debate camp in Henderson, locating in the Las Vegas suburb to squeeze more support out of Democratic vote-rich Clark County.

In rehearsals, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has played the role of Obama for Romney while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) portrays the former Massachusetts governor for Obama.

The debates “set a context for the last stretch of the campaign,” commission co-chair Mike McCurry told me.

“Obama and Romney are really going to engage each other and really have a serious debate about their different philosophies,” McCurry said.

I asked Minow, who has been involved in presidential debates for decades, if he had any advice.

Said Minow, “Think before you speak.”

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