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First Thoughts: After nine battleground polls

What we’ve learned after nine NBC/WSJ/Marist battleground polls… Campaigns play the debate expectations game… But here’s the only expectation you need to know: Romney needs a game-changer… Examining the early voting that began yesterday in Iowa… Krauthammer to Romney: Go big… Romney stumps in Pennsylvania, while Biden is in Florida… Akin says McCaskill isn’t acting “ladylike”… And “Meet” has Chris Christie.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talks about the polls and what they mean for the Romney campaign.

*** After nine battleground polls: We've now released nine battleground state NBC/WSJ/Marist polls in the last three weeks, and what have we learned? President Obama is ahead of Mitt Romney in all nine, with his biggest leads being 7 and 8 points (in Ohio, New Hampshire, and Iowa) and his smallest edge at 2 points (in Nevada and North Carolina). Obama's average percentage in these polls is 49.5% and Romney's is 44% -- which is consistent with the national polls (see below). Our state surveys also show a slight improvement in voters who believe that the nation is headed in the right direction. And they find Obama and Romney essentially tied on who would better handle the economy, while Obama mostly enjoys double-digit leads on foreign policy.

Slideshow: On the campaign trail

*** Placing the states into three buckets: Here’s another way to look at our nine polls -- dividing them into three buckets. The first bucket: The states where Obama’s job-approval rating is at 49% or higher, and those states are Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia. The second bucket: The states where Obama leads on the economy, and those are Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Ohio. And the third and final bucket: The states where Romney’s favorability is underwater, and those are Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There are three states that apply to all three buckets, and you can consider those Romney’s most problematic states right now: Iowa, New Hampshire, and Ohio. As for where Romney’s in the best shape: North Carolina; it’s the only state where Obama’s job is under 49%, where Romney leads him on the economy, and where Romney’s favorable rating is right side up.

*** The debate expectations game: Both campaigns are now fully engaged in lowering expectations for Wednesday's debate. Yesterday afternoon, we got our hands on a Romney memo by senior adviser Beth Myers, who wrote: “President Obama is a uniquely gifted speaker, and is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history. This will be the eighth one-on-one presidential debate of his political career. For Mitt Romney, it will be his first.” Meanwhile, the Obama camp countered with its own memo by David Axelrod: “[W]e expect Mitt Romney to be a prepared, disciplined and aggressive debater. Gov. Pawlenty said Romney ‘is as good as it gets in debating. He is poised, prepared, smart, strategic.’ We expect that Mitt Romney to show up in Denver. Second, debates—and particularly the first debate—generally favor challengers.” But here’s the truth about Obama and Romney: Neither has been a stellar debater. Obama never shined during the Democratic primary debates of ’08, and candidate Obama had a tendency to ramble (something he improved upon in his general-election debates against John McCain). And while Romney performed well at most of this season’s GOP primary debates, he had some rough performances (the $10,000 bet, the debates in South Carolina). Romney’s one-on-one performances in ’94 and ’02 (for SEN and GOV) were uneven, and his biggest weakness is unspoken body language. The bottom line: Ivy League debate coaches will enjoy Biden v. Ryan a heckuva lot more.

*** Romney needs a game-changer: But here's the only expectation you need to know: Romney needs a game-changer, while Obama needs a split decision. That’s what happens when one person is behind and the other is ahead. And in his weekly National Journal column, Charlie Cook appears to agree. “If the presidential race stays on its current course for another week or 10 days, Romney faces the very real prospect that Republican donors, super PACs, and other parts of the GOP support structure will begin to shift resources away from helping him and toward a last-ditch effort to win a Senate majority—which once seemed very likely—and to protect the party’s House majority.” Essentially, Charlie is warning of political Darwinism kicking in with the rest of the GOP. Bottom line: With less than 40 days until Election Day and with votes already being cast, Romney needs to change the dynamics of this race -- ASAP -- if he is going to win. And his clearest opportunity is at next week's debate in Denver.

*** Examining the early vote in Iowa: Speaking of early voting, NBC’s Jamie Novogrod was reporting yesterday from Iowa, where early voting had begun on Thursday. In downtown Des Moines, voters had already lined up at 9:00 am ET as the Polk County elections office opened, and many of the voters were Obama supporters, and some wore stickers bearing the words “Be the First” -- the slogan for the Obama campaign’s early-vote push. Polk County Elections Commissioner Jamie Fitzgerald told NBC that this was the busiest opening day he had observed during 10 years working in that office. Novogrod also reported that Polk County had 30,615 absentee ballots ready to ship out yesterday -- 20,810 requested by Democrats, 4,024 by Republicans, 5,739 listed as “no party,” and 42 registered as “other.” How well has Obama supporters communicated their preference to get folks to the polls early? Check out these numbers in our Nevada and North Carolina NBC/WSJ/Marist surveys. In Nevada, Obama leads Romney 53%-43% among folks who tell us they will vote early, while Romney leads 57%-39% among Election Day voters. And Obama’s lead is even bigger in North Carolina among early voters (57%-41%).

*** Krauthammer to Romney: go big: Another day, another conservative trying to give advice to Mitt Romney and his campaign. Today’s example: The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer. And his advice: Go big. “His unwillingness to go big, to go for the larger argument, is simply astonishing. For six months, he’s been matching Obama small ball for small ball...  When you’re behind, however, safe is fatal.” More Krauthammer: “Make the case. Go large. About a foreign policy in ruins. About an archaic, 20th-century welfare state model that guarantees 21st-century insolvency. And about an alternate vision of an unapologetically assertive America abroad unafraid of fundamental structural change at home. It might just work. And it’s not too late.”

Steve Helber / AP

President Barack Obama gestures during a rally in Virginia Beach, Va., Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012.

*** Poll round-up: Here are the latest polls:

National: Fox: Obama 48%-43%; Gallup: Obama 50%-44%

State: NBC/WSJ polls in New Hampshire: Obama 51%-44%, Nevada: Obama 49%-47%, North Carolina; Obama 48%-46%; Suffolk in Virginia: Obama 46%-44%; Iowa: TIR-Voter/Consumer Research (R): Romney 47%-46%.

Downballot: NBC/WSJ/Marist: Dean Heller leads Shelley Berkley in Nevada 49-43%; NBC/WSJ/Marist: Maggie Hassan leads Ovide LaMontagne 47-45%; NBC/WSJ/Marist: Pat McCrory leads Walter Dalton, 52-39%.

*** On the trail: Romney holds a rally in Wayne, PA at 12:05 pm ET… Joe Biden stumps in Florida… And First Lady Michelle Obama campaigns in Cedar Rapids, IA and Appleton, WI…. Over the weekend, Biden remains in Florida on Saturday, and Paul Ryan campaigns in New Hampshire… And on Sunday, Obama visits Las Vegas. By the way, the Obama camp says that Biden will make this charge on Romney while in Florida: “Biden will explain to voters how Mitt Romney’s tax plan could raise taxes on Social Security benefits by $460 per year to pay for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.”

*** Akin says McCaskill not acting “ladylike”: The Kansas City Star: “Comments by Republican Todd Akin once again are stirring controversy, this time with a claim that U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill was not acting ‘ladylike’ during their recent debate. Akin said Thursday that McCaskill’s demeanor during last week’s debate differed vastly from her 2006 campaign against Jim Talent, which he contends demonstrates she thinks he’s going to win this fall. ‘I think we have a very clear path to victory, and apparently Claire McCaskill thinks we do, too, because she was very aggressive at the debate, which was quite different than it was when she ran against Jim Talent,’ Akin said at a news conference in the state Capitol. ‘She had a confidence and was much more ladylike (in 2006), but in the debate on Friday she came out swinging, and I think that’s because she feels threatened.’”

*** On “Meet” this Sunday: NBC’s David Gregory interviews New Jersey Gov. Christie.

Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 5 days
Countdown to VP debate: 13 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 18 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 24 days
Countdown to Election Day: 39 days

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