10/01/2012 04:59 EDT | Updated 12/01/2012 05:12 EST

Obama, Romney, in debate camp in advance of hotly anticipated verbal showdown

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were in hard-core debate preparation on Monday as each of their campaigns tamped down expectations of decisive oratorical dominance ahead of the hotly anticipated first presidential debate in Denver this week.

A trio of debates this month kicks off Wednesday in Colorado, a critical swing state where the president has recently pulled ahead of his Republican challenger for the White House.

The stakes are especially high for Romney — the debates will likely represent his last chance to turn around his floundering campaign before the Nov. 6 election. With just five weeks until the vote, polls show he's trailing Obama in most of the nine battleground states that will decide the election.

Obama has been in Nevada all week for what is likely the final "debate camp" of his political career, hunkered down with his top advisers at a lakeside resort.

Sen. John Kerry — like Romney, a well-heeled, patrician politician from Massachusetts — has been playing the Republican millionaire in mock debates with the president. Obama's team has also been poring over videotape dating back to Romney's debates in 1994 against Sen. Ted Kennedy.

"What I'm most concerned about is having a serious discussion about what we need to do to keep the country growing and restore security to hardworking Americans," Obama told a political rally in Las Vegas over the weekend.

"That is what people are going to be listening for. That's the debate you deserve."

Romney was in Massachusetts early Monday for his own debate camp, although he travelled to Colorado on Monday to appear at a rally in Denver. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman has been standing in as Obama during Romney's debate rehearsals.

Both campaigns have been playing down expectations of success. Americans, however, seem to expect Obama to best Romney during the debates, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post survey.

By a 56-29 per cent margin, those surveyed said they expected the president to "win" the debates. Sixty-three per cent also said they believed the debates will assure Obama's re-election.

Such high expectations for Obama's success relieves a bit of pressure for Romney.

Romney's campaign has been heralding the president's debating skills for weeks, thereby lowering expectations for the former Massachusetts governor. The reasoning? If Americans expect Romney to perform badly, they'll be pleasantly surprised if he does well.

Romney "doesn't have to hit a home run," Newt Gingrich, a onetime Republican presidential hopeful, said in an interview on Sunday.

"But Romney has to be, at the end of the debate Wednesday night, a clear alternative who is considered as a potential president by a majority of the American people."

Last week, Romney aide Beth Myers released a memo calling Obama "a uniquely gifted speaker ... widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history."

Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, also waxed poetic.

"The man has been on the national stage for many years," he said over the weekend. "He's an experienced debater; he's done these kinds of debates before. This is Mitt's first time on this kind of a stage."

That's not entirely the case: Romney appeared in more than a dozen high-profile debates during Republican primary season. Millions tuned in to watch them.

While he performed serviceably in most showdowns, there were a few debate moments that caused Team Romney to blanch, in particular when he offered to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 as they sparred over Romney's record on public health care.

But he also knocked it out of the park in a debate in Florida just days after Gingrich stunned the Romney campaign and handily won the primary in South Carolina. Romney eloquently defended his wealth and how he acquired it while devastatingly dismissing Gingrich's oft-stated intention to build a U.S. colony on the moon.

Romney's a "good debater," Obama said in Las Vegas. He described his own debating skills as "just OK."

Obama's campaign has also been citing the kinds of criticisms usually levelled by Republicans regarding the president's speaking style.

"He has a tendency to give longer, substantive answers," said Jen Psaki, Obama's travelling press secretary.

The first debate's short-answer format could therefore cause problems for Obama. "That's something clearly we're working on," she said.

Even though the first debate is focused on domestic policy, Republicans were continuing to assail the Obama administration for its handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador to the North African country.

In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Romney reiterated his criticism of Obama for calling the attack and a wave of anti-American violence in the U.S. as "bumps in the road" in a recent interview with "60 Minutes."

"Our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them," said Romney, who is planning to deliver a major foreign policy speech soon. "We're not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies."