Obama, Romney Kick Off First Presidential Debate

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*Watch tonight's presidential debate LIVE here.*

DENVER (AP)
— Primed for a showdown, President Barack Obama and Republican
challenger Mitt Romney left their practice sessions behind Wednesday for
a prime-time debate before millions with the power to settle the race
for the White House in tough economic times.

A little less than five weeks before the election, the stakes were enormous, yet unquantifiable.

“The
debates could well decide one way or the other” who takes the oath of
office next January, Romney said in a CBS interview that aired in
advance.

But Obama, who holds a narrow lead in
opinion polls, told the network: “I don't think that any single factor
ends up making a big difference.”

The
encounter was the first of three for the candidates. By agreement
between the rival campaigns, it was focused on the economy and other
domestic issues.

Jim Lehrer of PBS drew
moderator's duties, with Obama getting the first question and Romney the
last word. The two candidates paid separate visits to the debate hall
on the campus of the University of Denver during the day to familiarize
themselves with the surroundings.

Five weeks
before Election Day, early voting is under way in scattered states and
beginning in more every day. Opinion polls show Obama with an advantage
nationally and in most if not all of the battleground states where the
race is most likely to be decided.

That put particular pressure on Romney to come up with a showing strong enough to alter the course of the campaign.

The
sputtering economy served as the debate backdrop, as it has for
virtually everything else in the 2012 campaign for the White House.
Obama took office in the shadow of an economic crisis but promised a
turnaround that hasn't materialized. Economic growth has been sluggish
throughout his term, with unemployment above 8 percent since before he
took office.

The customary security blended
with a festival-like atmosphere in the surrounding area on a warm and
sunny day. The Lumineers performed for free, and Black Eyed Peas
frontman will.i.am delivered a pep talk of sorts to Obama's supporters.
School officials arranged to show the debate on monitors outside the
hall for those without tickets.

There was
local political theater, too, including female Romney supporters wearing
short shorts and holding signs that said, “What War On Women?” – a
rebuttal to claims by Obama and the Democrats.

Both
campaigns engaged in a vigorous pre-debate competition to set
expectations, each side suggesting the other had built-in advantages.

Romney
took part in 19 debates during the campaign for the Republican primary
early in the year. The president has not been onstage with a political
opponent since his last face-to-face encounter with Arizona Sen. John
McCain, his Republican rival in 2008.

Obama
and Romney prepared for the evening with lengthy practice sessions.
Romney selected Ohio Sen. Rob Portman as a stand-in for the president;
Obama turned to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to play the Republican
role.

The two presidential rivals also are scheduled to debate on Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Vice
President Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have one
debate, Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky. Both men have already begun holding
practice sessions.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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