President Barack Obama travels to Henderson, Nev., on Sunday for a mission far more important than the usual swing state campaign rally: He will huddle with senior aides for a three-day boot camp to prepare for the first presidential debate.
On Monday, Mitt Romney will do the same with his advisers in Denver, two days before the rivals take the stage at the University of Denver for a 90-minute faceoff focused on the economy.
Their willingness to nearly disappear from public view for 48 to 72 hours reflects the high stakes of the three October debates, as Obama has assumed a small but clear lead in the polls with five weeks remaining in the race.
If 2008 is a guide, the nationally televised debates could reach audiences of up to 60 million viewers, by far the largest platform either nominee will have to reach voters.
Republican strategists said the debates could be the last best chance for Romney to deliver a decisive blow, change the narrative and steady his campaign. They said Romney would try to force the president out of his comfort zone by attacking Obama's economic record, then hope the president blunders trying to defend it.
"The president has compiled a miserable economic record over the last four years, with higher unemployment, lower incomes, rising energy costs, out of control Washington spending," Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. "Those are some of the issues you can expect Mitt Romney to talk about."
Obama and his advisers say they recognize the risks, and they have sought to play down expectations. They note that this would be Obama's first debate in four years, while Romney has had more recent practice with a string of primary debates. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina called Romney a "very skilled debater" and claimed that Romney won 19 of the 23 Republican primary debates.
"The Romney team has made no secret of the intense preparation of their candidate, and historically challengers benefit from simply being on the stage with the incumbent," Messina said this week, "so we are clear-eyed about how prepared he will be and about how difficult this debate will be."
Aides said the president will again frame the election as a choice between his and Romney's policies. Obama has warned voters that his rival would harm the middle class by giving tax breaks to the wealthy and rolling back Wall Street regulations.