Image: Republican presidential candidate Romney pauses while speaking at a campaign rally in Denver
Brian Snyder  /  Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney pauses while speaking at a campaign rally in Denver, Colorado October 1, 2012 ahead of his first debate with U.S. President Barack Obama.
NBC News
updated 10/3/2012 11:53:51 AM ET 2012-10-03T15:53:51

Why tonight’s debate could be so crucial: After a slew of new NBC/WSJ polls released over the past 12 hours, here’s where the presidential contest stands right before tonight’s first debate: President Obama holds a narrow and tightening national lead over Mitt Romney among likely voters, 49%-46%.

It’s also narrow and tight in the battleground states of Florida (where it’s Obama 47 percent, Romney 46 percent) and Virginia (Obama 48 percent, Romney 46 percent). But in the battleground of Ohio, the president enjoys a substantial advantage, 51 percent- 43 percent. So Romney is both so close and yet so far away.

It’s extremely difficult -- though not impossible -- for Romney to get to 270 electoral votes without Ohio. It’s also difficult for Romney to win the presidency when he trails Obama by a 48 percent - 35 percent margin in the national NBC/WSJ poll on which candidate is better prepared to lead to the country for the next four years, as well when the “47 percent” comment has taken such a toll on him. And that’s why tonight’s debate could be so crucial to the presidential contest.

Video: Poll: Romney’s favorability rating is upside down
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It very well could be Romney’s last chance to change the trajectory of the race. And it gives Obama, whose 49 percent approval rating is at re-elect level, the opportunity to shut off his opponent’s last path to victory.

Why the NBC/WSJ poll is mostly good news for Obama: In fact, the best news for Romney in the national NBC/WSJ poll is his likely-voter number. But the rest is good news for Obama.

According to the survey, 44 percent believe that the economy will improve in the next 12 months -- that’s up two points from the last NBC/WSJ survey, eight points since August and a whopping 17 points since July. What’s more, 57 percent  think that the U.S. economy is recovering, versus 39 percent  who disagree with that notion.

And four in 10 now say the country is headed in the right direction, which is the highest percentage on this question since June 2009. Given the increased economic optimism, Obama and Romney are nearly tied on which candidate would better handle the economy, with 45 percent  picking Romney and 42 percent  choosing Obama. But the president leads Romney on almost all other issues and character traits -- looking out for the middle class, handing the situation in the Middle East, handling immigration, dealing with Medicare, being a good commander in chief, handling foreign policy, and dealing with taxes.

Romney, meanwhile, holds the edge on dealing with the federal budget deficit and dealing with the economic challenges that the U.S. faces from China. All of these numbers explain why Obama’s three-point lead looks so commanding.

Tonight’s debate format: Here’s the format for tonight’s 90-minute debate from Denver, CO that begins at 9:00 pm ET: “There will be no rigid time limits, buzzers or cheering that often threatened to turn the Republican primary debates into a recurring political game show.

The debate will be divided into six segments of 15 minutes, with ample opportunity for robust exchanges and a level of specificity that both sides have often sought to avoid,” the New York Times writes. Both Obama and Romney will stand at podiums.

Obama gets the first question, and Romney gets to speak last in the closing remarks. And while there are no rigid time limits during each segment, each candidate gets two minutes to answer the opening question; the rest is free-flowing.

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Video: The importance of Wednesday’s debate

  1. Closed captioning of: The importance of Wednesday’s debate

    >>> the university of denver . a beautiful campus here, debate day, wednesday, october 3. this is "the daily rundown." i'm chuck todd . let's get to my first read. everything has been said about the importance of tonight's debate. now it is up to the candidates themselves who will meet on the university of denver on the same stage. romney has inched up slightly in our " wall street journal " poll. the bad news when you dig deeper you see the structural problems facing romney as he tries to catch up and how damaging the 47% remark was and is to the campaign. is there such a thing as a commanding lead? if so he has it. president obama 's job approval rating is at 49%. 48% disapprove of his performance. 40% believe the country is headed in the right direction. the highest number we recorded in 3 1/2 years. 53% still believe the country is on the wrong track. the president leads romney by three. what is helping romney tighten the race? a fact true all year continues to be true. republican voters are more interested in this election than democrats. the president has a larger lead. he is up seven. the problem for him is a lack of enthusiasm of hispanics and young voters. romney has to do things to make people substantially change the way people feel about him. his approval rating is still under water. the lowest for any presidential nominee at this point in time other than george h.w. bush in 1992 . romney is out with his second straight to camera ad in the direct effort to undo damage of the remarks.

    >> more americans live in poverty than when president obama took office. we should measure our compassion by how many fellow americans are able to get good paying jobs and not how many are on welfare.

    >> look at these numbers. by a whopping 51 to 28 voters say what they have heard about romney has made them feel more unfavorably there is still a few yellow flags for the president. more people disapprove of how he has handled the situation in libya and egypt than approve. if you want to understand why the president is leading look at this number, economic optimism. 57% now believe the economy is recovering. that number is up six points in just the past few weekz. ultimately this race will be won in nine battleground states . florida , virginia , and ohio romney is tight in the races with the states of fluidity, florida and virginia . in florida obama and romney are neck and neck. virginia romney has narrowed the lead from 5 to 2. another statistical tie. in ohio the president has improved his standing. he leads romney there by eight points. and for those wondering about the party idea the sample is less democratic in ohio this time than the last poll. digging deeper into our numbers we divided thet battleground states by three measures. president's job rating. romney 's favorability rating that number is still under water he has problems and the question of which candidate is better equipped to manage the economy. remember the unemployment rate is 5.9% in virginia . romney 's favorable in florida but under in virginia and ohio . when it comes to who is better able to manage the economy a question on which romney has staked his candidacy romney has a margin of error lead in florida and virginia . the president leads on that question in ohio . with iowa, new hampshire and ohio headed to the obama column that puts the president at 265 and that means romney has to run the table on the remaining states to get to 270. if the debate doesn't move romney 's numbers in ohio he may face the same decision al gore faced in 2000 whether to take the pr hit. all of this explains why tonight's debate is so crucial.

    >> it is spectacular and i have never seen it before.

    >> a 726 foot monument to government infrastructure. in denver romney 's break time was lunch to chipotle. the candidates off the trail on tuesday and the two men picked up the slack.

    >> how they can justify, how they can justify raising taxes when the middle class has been buried the last four years.

    >> well, reporters were buried by romney 's press releases on that comment. paul ryan reacted to it.

    >> vice president biden just today said that the middle class over the last four years has been, quote, buried. we agree. that means we need to stop digging by electing mitt romney the next president of the united states .

    >> biden clarified his remarks saying, quote, the middle class was buried by policies that romney and ryan supported. the romney campaign tries to make the stick calling a conference call and then holding a press conference in denver this morning. no doubt we'll hear more about the comments tonight from romney as he tries to draw attention away from his own 47% remark. there is a quick look at tonight's format. there are no opening statements . the president will answer the opening questions. the debate will be divided into six 15-minute segments. the president and romney will each get two minutes to answer an initial question in each topic area but then timing will be left to the moderator's discretion. since obama won a coin toss he won the choice and romney got the choice of if he wants the first or second closing statement . he will be the last person you hear from at tonight's debate. it's going to


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