Pre-Debate: Parties Rally Around Their Candidate

President Obama and his GOP rival Mitt Romney are preparing for the first presidential debate Wednesday in Denver. Over the weekend, Republican operatives said the debates would change everything.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's turn, as we do most Mondays, to Cokie Roberts, who's on the line. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: You know, normally you have presidential advisers kind of trying to lower expectations for their guy.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: But Republicans over the weekend were arguing that the upcoming presidential debates could change everything. You ever heard anything like this?

ROBERTS: No, it was really remarkable. They were just raising the stakes for Romney in all kinds of ways. Basically what these Republicans are saying, OK, it's up to you now, Mitt Romney; we, the Republican Party, all believe that this - they are saying - all believe this a slam dunk election given the economic situation, and the fact that Romney is behind in the polls, particularly the battleground states, is in their minds, his fault, not the party's fault.

Now there's lot of contradictory evidence to that, but that's not what they are saying. So the entire Republican world, it seems, was out there yesterday saying that Wednesday is Romney's break-out moment. So there's lot of pressure there - to put it mildly.

INSKEEP: I suppose also, by making that argument, you're arguing that the election is not over and trying to argue against that assumption that some people may have that Obama hasn't won.

ROBERTS: Well, sure. The notion that an election is over 37 days out is just a silly notion.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ROBERTS: But look, these debates can make a difference. I had - in 1980, there was only one debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and it was the week before the election. And, of course, the Republicans are trying hard to compare Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter - given the economic situation and now the foreign policy situation. And in that debate, after it was over, I went to what is now called a Reagan-Democrat neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and really, I could not find a white vote for Carter.

And they all said exactly the same thing - I kind of like Ronald Reagan, but I was a little scared of him, but then I saw him last night stand up with the President of the United States for 90 minutes, and now I'm for him. The big difference, of course, is that Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan, and people were looking for an excuse to like Ronald Reagan, and he gave it to them in that debate.

INSKEEP: I'm impressed that you were able to get that insight out of people in 1980 when you were 11 years old, Cokie Roberts.

ROBERTS: Yeah. There you go, Steve.

INSKEEP: So this year, are there enough undecided voters lefts, people actually sitting there who would be making up their minds watching the television in the next few weeks?

ROBERTS: Well, the polls don't show many undecided voters period, but there are people who haven't firmly settled with either candidate, what the pollsters call persuadables. And in the latest Washington Post ABC poll out this morning, the race is still essentially tied among likely voters. But by two to one they thing Obama will win this election, and last year at this time they thought he would lose by about 18 points.

So that does give some sense of the turnaround, but it doesn't say that people are happy about it. In fact, in this poll out this morning, more people say they're confident that the economy would turn around if Romney were elected, than if Obama were reelected. And there's some other bright spots here for Mitt Romney, as well. More see his wealth as a plus, not a minus.

Fewer say he's not paying his fair share in taxes, but still, a majority think his policies will favor the wealthy, whereas two-thirds think Obama's policies favor the middle class as you just heard in that piece from Scott Horsley.

INSKEEP: Yeah. In 2004 when John Kerry was losing, we're reminded that some Democrats began complaining that the polls were biased. This year it's Republicans complaining that the polls are biased.

ROBERTS: Well, they've got an argument that is a little bit complicated. So the way polling works is that the pollsters call random numbers, you know, hundreds and then thousands of random telephone numbers, and then weight them to reflect the population as a whole. What the Republicans are claiming is that the weighting is wrong because it's based on the 2008 election when there was a much higher Democratic turnout than usual and a higher self-identified Democrats than usual.

Some Republicans say this is intentional to create a bandwagon effect for Obama, other say it's just the math is off. But there's no real evidence that that's the case.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much as always. That's Cokie Roberts who joins us most Monday mornings and will continue joining us as this election season continues. We are in the final full month of the election season, the first week of presidential debates. This is NPR News.

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