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Campaigns launch into expectations game ahead of vital presidential debate

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Mitt Romney and President Obama are shown campaigning in Virginia Sept. 27, 2012.AP

With the first presidential debate set for Wednesday, the campaigns are hard at work trying to jockey for advantage -- as the Obama campaign girds for a potentially aggressive performance by Mitt Romney. 

The three October debates could be Romney's best chance to overtake President Obama in the polls and build lasting momentum into Election Day. To date, he has trailed Obama by single digits for months in most national polls while the president recently has watched his lead grow in key swing states. 

The debate stage, for Romney, represents an opportunity to win over the wishy-washy. And Obama's team wants to make sure his opponent is not so convincing. In the run-up to Wednesday, each campaign is now engaged in a delicate political dance, trying to manage expectations and shoot down potential talking points while generally psyching out the other side. 

Dueling campaign memos released Thursday and Friday contained practically the same message: The other guy is a skilled debater, the other guy has the advantage, but our guy has the truth on his side and debates aren't the only factor. 

"Just as he was in the primaries, we expect Mitt Romney to be a prepared, disciplined and aggressive debater," Obama adviser David Axelrod wrote in a memo Friday, adding that debates "generally favor challengers." 

Axelrod went on to list several other advantages Romney supposedly has -- the Republican nominee got plenty of debate practice during the primaries, and he's "unencumbered" by the responsibility of being president. 

"Maybe this is why the Romney campaign has so confidently predicted for months that he will turn in a campaign-changing performance such as Ronald Reagan's in 1980," Axelrod wrote. 

He was referring to Reagan's late surge past then-President Jimmy Carter in the polls following a strong debate performance. 

Axelrod's counterpart on the Romney campaign, adviser Beth Myers, made a similar case. 

"While Governor Romney has the issues and the facts on his side, President Obama enters these contests with a significant advantage on a number of fronts," she wrote in a strategy memo. "Voters already believe -- by a 25-point margin -- that President Obama is likely to do a better job in these debates. Given President Obama's natural gifts and extensive seasoning under the bright lights of the debate stage, this is unsurprising. President Obama is a uniquely gifted speaker, and is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history." 

Myers stressed that this will be Romney's first "one-on-one" presidential debate, and argued that Obama was judged the winner every time he faced John McCain in 2008. "The takeaway? Not only has President Obama gained valuable experience in these debates, he also won them comfortably." 

The first debate will be held this coming Wednesday in Denver, Colo., and will focus on domestic policy. 

It will be followed by the lone vice presidential debate on Oct. 11 between Republican running mate Paul Ryan and Vice President Biden. 

The second presidential debate is set for Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and is expected to be a town hall format covering a range of issues. 

The final debate is set for Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla., and will focus on foreign policy. 

While each candidate is trumpeting the other's debating prowess in order to lower expectations -- and hopefully pull off what would then be perceived as a surprisingly strong night -- each campaign is also hammering the other on the issues. 

"But what must President Obama overcome?" Myers asked. "His record." 

She argued his "ample rhetorical gifts" will be used to try and mask the failures in that record, warning the president will go "negative" to divert attention. 

Axelrod argued the same, and went on to try and rebut any potential argument. Citing a recent comment in which Romney predicted Obama would "say a lot of things that aren't accurate," the campaign also released a web video Friday challenging several of Romney's recent claims of mischaracterization. 

It showed one clip of Romney saying he's not in favor of lowering taxes on wealthy people, followed by a debate clip of Romney saying he wants to cut taxes for everyone by 20 percent, "including the top 1 percent." 

"Facts will matter," Axelrod wrote.