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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We have a new poll this morning by NPR News's bipartisan team of pollsters. This survey shows that among likely voters President Obama leads Mitt Romney by seven points nationally, and by six points in the dozen battleground states where the campaigns are spending most of their time and money.

But as NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, this survey also shows that the debates beginning tonight in Denver have the potential to shake up the race.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Almost every recent poll shows a lead in single digits for the president. Ours is on the high side of the range - seven points nationally and six in the battleground states. Whit Ayres, who's the Republican half of our polling team, explains why the current numbers may overstate the Obama case.

WHIT AYRES: This survey reflects a best-case scenario for Democrats. When you sample voters over time, you inevitably get varying proportions of Democrats and Republicans in the sample. It's nothing nefarious. It's just the vagaries of sampling. This sample ended up with seven points more Democrats than Republicans. In 2008 there were seven points more Democrats than Republicans in the electorate, according to exit polls. But in 2004 there were equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.

LIASSON: Most observers expect this year's turnout ratio to be somewhere between the 2008 edge for Democrats and the dead-even party turnout of 2004 and 2010.

Stan Greenberg, our Democratic pollster, says this year party I.D. has been tilting away from the GOP.

STAN GREENBERG: Across many polls, you have a drop in people who are self-identifying as Republicans. They're moving into the independent category, where also if you look at the brand position of the Republican Party and Democratic Party, the Republican Party favorability has been dropping throughout this whole period.

LIASSON: But independent doesn't mean undecided. Our poll found hardly any undecided voters and only few voters who said they could still change their minds; just 11 percent of Obama supporters and 15 percent of Romney's.

Whit Ayres.

AYRES: We have a very polarized electorate, where people go to their tribal corners and fight it out. So there are not that many movable people. But in an election this close, even a point or two could make a difference.

LIASSON: And that brings us to tonight's debate. Eighty-two percent of our likely voters say they plan to watch. And about one in four say the debate could affect their vote. That's why both candidates have been spending so much time getting ready for the debates and gaming the expectations.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Governor Romney, he's a good debater. I'm just okay.

MITT ROMNEY: There's going to be all this scoring of winning and losing. And, you know, in my view it's not so much winning and losing, or even the people themselves - the president and myself. It's about something bigger than that.

LIASSON: Romney faces the bigger task tonight because in our poll he's fallen behind on issues like taxes, the economy and Medicare. And he's viewed less favorably as a person.

Whit Ayres.

AYRES: In the debate tonight, Romney has to paint a compelling picture of a better economic future and explain why his emphasis on small businesses and private sector solutions is more likely to succeed than Obama's emphasis on governmental and public sector solutions. He needs to come across as knowledgeable and compassionate about people who are hurting in this economy. If he does that, he will help to close this gap that we're seeing in a lot of recent polls.

LIASSON: Our poll shows Romney still has a four point advantage among independents, so it's quite possible that a solid performance tonight could begin to turn the race around. That's one reason Stan Greenberg thinks the president can't afford to sit on to his lead.

GREENBERG: He's got to decide on one thing, that he wants to communicate here. My guess is he will want to communicate a presidential but not arrogant, empathetic style. He's got the same problem. He's got to focus in a way that seals the deal.

LIASSON: Romney is still struggling to turn the race into a referendum on President Obama's economic record. Whit Ayres says he can start doing that tonight.

AYRES: If Mitt Romney becomes an acceptable alternative, I think it devolves into a referendum on Barack Obama's economic record. At this point I don't think he could win that referendum.

GREENBERG: But isn't it too late for this? I mean we've - you know, that's been the argument for some time, that we have to make the election a referendum. They had an entire convention to make that case. And I think what we get here with the Democrats emerging with a bigger lead, that becomes a big challenge for Mr. Romney.

AYRES: Which is why it is so important for Governor Romney tonight to paint a compelling vision of a better economic future.

There will be two more debates this month between these candidates. But tonight's first encounter has the most potential to change the dynamic of the race. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Denver.

LIASSON: If you want to take a look at the full poll results, just go to npr.org.

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