After weeks of relentless hype akin to the buildup before the Super Bowl, the first presidential debate will be held Wednesday night in Denver.
More than 60 million Americans are expected to watch President Obama and Mitt Romney square off in the “Rumble in the Rockies,” a potentially make-or-break moment for the Republican challenger.
Obama has opened up a lead in both national polls and — perhaps most importantly — in several swing states, but many in the GOP are hopeful that Romney can reverse the momentum of the race with a strong debate showing.
The urgency is especially important since the debate follows by a day the start of early voting in Ohio.
The candidates’ wives hit the campaign trail Tuesday while their spouses crammed for their showdown.
Michelle Obama — who will be celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary Wednesday by watching her husband on the debate stage — rallied supporters in Cincinnati, where the polls opened at 8 a.m. on Tuesday.
“I’ve got news for you,” the First Lady said. “Here in Ohio, it is already Election Day.”
More than 30% of voters nationwide are expected to cast their ballots, either in person or absentee, before Election Day, and nowhere are those votes being more heavily courted than in Ohio.
Recent polls have Obama up by nearly double digits in the Buckeye State, where a loss could cripple Romney’s White House hopes.
Several Ohio polling places reported long lines as both campaigns urged their die-hard supporters to vote early so their focus can shift to the undecideds.
Ann Romney, meanwhile, ignored the time-honored political routine to lower expectations before a debate, proclaiming that her husband would do well.
“We have a debate coming up, and we’re excited about that,” she told a crowd in suburban Denver. “We’re focused. And I can’t wait to see the contrast (Wednesday).”
Both candidates largely stayed out of sight, except for Romney’s lunch run to a Chipotle Mexican Grill and Obama’s field trip to the Hoover Dam, but their campaigns stepped up their battle over taxes.
Republicans seized on an apparent verbal misstep by Vice President Biden, who mocked Romney’s fiscal plan by asking a North Carolina crowd, “How they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years?”
The Romney team quickly pounced, claiming that Biden’s statement was an admission that the middle class had suffered under Obama’s watch.
“We agree!” shouted Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, during a campaign stop in Iowa. “That means we need to stop digging by electing Mitt Romney as the next President of the United States.”
The GOP ticket has been short on specifics on its tax plan, insisting it could reduce the federal deficit — even while slashing taxes — if some loopholes are closed. Romney floated one idea during an interview Tuesday.
“As an option, you could say everybody’s going to get up to a $17,000 deduction,” Romney said, “and you could use your charitable deduction, your home mortgage deduction or others — your health care deduction. And you can fill that bucket, if you will, that $17,000 bucket that way.”
It was unclear if that idea would gain traction in swing states where Romney has found himself trailing the President.
His efforts to capture one of them, Pennsylvania, were dealt a serious blow Tuesday when a judge halted enforcement of the state’s tough new voter identification law.
The controversial law, which was written by the state GOP, would have almost certainly limited voting by minority-group members, senior citizens, young adults, college students and the poor — all demographics expected to largely cast their ballots for Obama.
But Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson ruled Tuesday that the state cannot enforce the measure this Election Day. Therefore, residents who do not have valid state ID will still have their votes counted.
Obama has consistently led in Pennsylvania polls, and recent surveys have his margin in the double digits, but Romney’s campaign has considered making a late push in the state.