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President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, campaigning in Ohio last week, have clear goals for their three debates. The first is this week.

Stakes high under debate spotlight

Opportunity is unique; errors are magnified

– Barack Obama is cruising into the presidential debates with momentum on his side, and yet he’s still struggling to revive the passion and excitement that propelled him to the White House. Mitt Romney is grasping for his last, best chance to reboot his campaign after a disastrous September.

The fierce and determined competitors in the tight race have a specific mission for the three debates, the first of which is Wednesday night in Denver.

Obama, no longer the fresh face of 2008, must convince skeptical Americans that he can accomplish in a second term what he couldn’t in his first, restoring the economy to full health.

Romney, anxious to keep the race from slipping away, needs to instill confidence that he is a credible and trusted alternative to the president, with the superior plan for strengthening the economy.

“The burden in many ways is heavier on Romney,” says Wayne Fields, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in political rhetoric. “What we see right now is an uncertainty about whether he’s ready for the job.”

For all the hundreds of campaign appearances, thousands of political ads and billions of dollars invested in the race, this is a singular moment in the contest. Upward of 50 million people are expected to watch each of the debates, drawing the largest political audience of the year.

Forty-one percent of Americans reported watching all the 2008 debates, and 80 percent said they saw at least a bit, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

That interest tends to crowd out everything else for a time, adding to the debates’ importance. With polls indicating that Obama has been gaining ground steadily in the most competitive states, the pressure is on Romney to turn in a breakout performance.

With early or absentee voting already under way in more than half of the states, any first impressions created in the debates create could well be last impressions. What the candidates say is sure to matter immensely, but how they say it may count for even more.

“We remember visual impressions from debates more than we remember specific words,” says Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor who’s written a history of presidential debates.

Whether the candidates smile or grimace, strike a confident or defensive pose, speak with a resonant or strained tone of voice, it all matters. That may be particularly true for the all-important undecided voters and those still open to changing their minds.

Staunch Democrats and Republicans may well be firm in their choices, says Patti Wood, an Atlanta-based expert on body language, but if less partisan voters are “frightened in general about their lives, if they’re insecure, they’re going to pick the most charismatic person.”

Both candidates have challenges to overcome on that score, according to Wood.

Obama, 51, has been sounding “very tired and very strained” lately, she says, and Romney, 65, “has a problem with appearing superior and cold.”

Overall, she says, “Romney is looking a little bit younger than Obama right now,” in terms of energy if not wrinkles.

Both candidates are experienced and competent debaters. But each, setting the judgment bar high for his opponent, is working overtime to puff up the skills of the other guy and play down his own debate credentials.

Romney recently described the president as “eloquent in describing his vision” during the 2008 debates. But the GOP nominee added that Obama “can’t win by his words, because his record speaks so loudly in our ears.”

Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki stresses that Romney has been preparing for the debates with “more focus than any presidential candidate in modern history.” Sketching sky-high stakes, Psaki says the Republicans fully expect the debates to be “their turning point” in the campaign.

There’s no shortage of advice swirling around the two candidates: loosen up, study up, be aggressive, don’t overdo it, admit mistakes, don’t apologize, project confidence, ooze emotion, use humor, make eye contact, get more sleep.

“That’s what so tricky about this,” says Schroeder. “Debates themselves are this kind of interesting blend of the choreographed and the spontaneous. ... What you want is for the candidate to be prepared but not to overlook those opportunities to improvise when you see an opening.”