By Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman
The kickoff presidential debate Wednesday in Denver is shaping up as do-or-die time for Mitt Romney, with the pressure intensifying this week after a flurry of swing-state polls showed President Barack Obama opening up a sizable lead.
Republicans, fretting about dwindling days for Romney to turn around his campaign, fear that if their nominee doesn't come away with a decisive first-debate victory, he'll continue to spiral downward and lose his last, best shot for a comeback.
So the Mile-High face-off has gone from merely important to critical for a challenger in need of a break.
"It went from being important to being life-sustaining," said GOP pollster Steve Lombardo, who worked for Romney in 2008. "Both from a fundraising perspective, to keep the money coming, and just a political perspective it's huge. Romney can't just do well and hold his own — he has to win and win decisively. If he's at parity with the president, I don't think that's enough."
Asked if it was time to sound the alarm over the listing Romney campaign, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in an interview that it depends on Denver.
"I believe that we won't know until after the first debate," Gingrich explained.
But as with any campaign that's trying to find traction, Romney is getting competing doses of advice from Republicans about just how he can emerge triumphant next week and win some momentum before the last two debates.
Some in the party are prescribing a forward-leaning assault on Obama's record.
"As my wife put it to me the other day, if he is assertive and direct with Obama as he was to me in the two Florida debates, he'll be fine," Gingrich said, recalling the primary face-offs in which Romney unleashed a torrent of opposition research upon his rival. "And I think that's a good way to think of it. He's got to go in there and not be hostile, but be assertive, clear and direct and not back off."
Suggested Gingrich: "He's got to draw a sharp contrast between a Romney recovery and Obama stagnation. He's got to say, ‘With all respect, Mr. President, this is the worst recovery since the Great Depression.'"
But other Republicans, eyeing the remaining swing voters who still retain some warm feelings for Obama, are counseling a Romney return to the more-in-sorrow-than-anger appeal he used against the president for much of this year.
The first Obama vs. Romney showdown comes as a series of public polls show that the president has staked out a solid advantage in the states that will decide the presidency. The numbers also suggest that Romney's deficit has worsened in the wake of the now-famous video that shows him dismissing the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes as self-described victims who won't take responsibility for themselves.
The Washington Post released a survey Tuesday that shows Romney trailing Obama by 8 percent in Ohio and 4 percent in Florida. And on Wednesday, The New York Times, CBS News and Quinnipiac published a poll with Obama up by 10 percent in Ohio and 9 percent in Florida.
The campaign has held several calls to assuage nervous donors, some of which have included Romney pollster Neil Newhouse. Newhouse conceded to participants that the Republican is down but argued that he's not as far back as the public polling suggests.
But what rankles some Romney donors is that for months, they were told that there were three big moments bound to change the race — the vice presidential pick, the convention and the debates — and the first two haven't put Romney in the lead. In fact, it was Obama, not Romney, who got a bounce out of his party's convention, which seems to have energized the Democratic base.
Romney's campaign has publicly sought to downplay the media surveys, but even the team and its allies now concede that the Republican has ground to make up in some of the pivotal states.
In discussing the state of play in Ohio to reporters on Tuesday, Romney political director Rich Beeson didn't make the case that they were winning there — only that the race is "inside the margin of error" in the state.
Other Republicans, however, fear that even if the battleground states are closer than they now seem, there's simply too many places where Romney is trailing for him to turn around his campaign by simply swinging a few undecideds in suburban Columbus.
He needs a national comeback and it has to start Wednesday night, say these GOP professionals.
"The need for a strong debate performance is increasing every single day," said Republican Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign. "And the pressure is really mounting on the candidate to be aggressive, to offer some solutions and to get back to that feeling we all had when Ryan was selected [for] the ticket — the boldness, the excitement and the fact that things were going to change."
That must begin in Denver because that's when many potential voters — including the small number of undecideds who still haven't made up their minds — will be getting their first extended look at Romney and when many will already begin casting early ballots.
"I think the first debate is exponentially more important than the rest of them," said GOP strategist Curt Anderson. "The rest of them only matter if somebody makes a mistake. The first one sets the tone."
Anderson, recalling Romney's performances in the myriad of GOP debates earlier this year, expressed confidence in the Republican because "he does best when his back is against the wall."
But the consultant acknowledged that without a clear win in the first face-off, Romney will start to need some luck.
"You then start to rely on unforced errors from the other team," Anderson said when asked what happens if Romney doesn't score a clear win.
What makes some veteran Republicans nervous as well is that a losing or even so-so first debate will trigger an ugly and perhaps unending round of intraparty sniping.
"That's what really hurts a campaign: not what the other party is saying about you, but if your own people are taking shots at you," explained former Reagan hand Frank Donatelli. "So I know that they want to get in there [and] have a strong debate performance to reassure Republicans who are being critical privately that this is still a potential winning campaign."
Another senior Republican operative said the new polls out this week are creating higher debate expectations that could prove damaging.
"The media coverage of the campaign has gotten so negative that [Romney] will be put in [a] position to have to perform well to be perceived as righting the ship of the campaign," said the operative, who is close to some in Romneyland. "Even in the case that he has [a] good debate, but not a stellar one, it'll be perceived as a loss and that begets more bad coverage."
Then, said this operative, down-ballot candidates begin distancing themselves publicly from the top of the ticket because "they think, ‘I'm not going to get any help from the top. It's then every man for himself."
Gingrich, in a piece he wrote for Human Events, put it in his own unique way.
"If Romney wins this debate, the next debate will have an even larger audience," Gingrich wrote. "If he loses it, the elite media will be giddy in its intense reporting of an Obama victory and the Obama team will be giddy and energized by the proclamation of victory."
The Oct. 3 forum is, the former speaker noted, nothing less than "the most important single event in Mitt Romney's political career."
The good news for Romney is that there's some precedent for rejiggering the race with a standout performance.
Bob Shrum, the longtime Democratic strategist, recalled how much help John Kerry got from his showing in the first debate of 2004, which was focused on foreign policy.
"We were 2 or 3 points behind in our data and when he won the debate hands down, we gained 8 points in a Newsweek poll and went into the lead in our data," Shrum said. "You change 60,000 votes in Ohio and that debate would have been key to victory."
Indeed, in each of the past three campaigns, the first face-off has been important. In 2000, Al Gore's audible sighs and invasion of George W. Bush's personal space helped the then-Texas governor; and in 2008, then-Sen. Obama's deft handling of the first question at the first debate with John McCain on the economic collapse reinforced his cool and confident image at a time of crisis.
"The first debate is like opening night of a Broadway play — either you have a strong night that both plays to the audience and generates positive reviews and go on to have a successful run or you don't and you are sunk," said Democrat Chris Lehane, who worked on Gore's 2000 campaign. "The first debate will either reinforce the current [trend] in the campaign — what Obama wants — or result in a realignment — what Romney needs."
James Hohmann contributed to this report.