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First Thoughts: Why tonight's debate could be so crucial

Our current NBC/WSJ polls explain why tonight’s debate is so crucial for Romney… And they also show why they’re mostly good news for Obama… The reason why the contest is close among likely voters: enthusiasm… “47%” take a toll on Romney… Does Romney think about pulling out of Ohio?... Tonight’s debate format: 90 minutes, divided into six 15-minute sections, no strict time limits, no audience applause… It begins at 9:00 pm ET… And Romney’s newest TV ad.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang and Republican pollster Bill McInturff join The Daily Rundown to break down the latest NBC News/ WSJ poll, which shows a narrow gap between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. The poll also shows that Romney's comments about the 47 percent has hurt him in the race.

*** Why tonight’s debate could be so crucial: After a slew of new NBC/WSJ polls released over the past 12 hours, here’s where the presidential contest stands right before tonight’s first debate: President Obama holds a narrow and tightening national lead over Mitt Romney among likely voters, 49%-46%. It’s also narrow and tight in the battleground states of Florida (where it’s Obama 47%, Romney 46%) and Virginia (Obama 48%, Romney 46%). But in the battleground of Ohio, the president enjoys a substantial advantage, 51%-43%. So Romney is both so close and yet so far away. It’s extremely difficult -- though not impossible -- for Romney to get to 270 electoral votes without Ohio. It’s also difficult for Romney to win the presidency when he trails Obama by a 48%-35% margin in the national NBC/WSJ poll on which candidate is better prepared to lead to the country for the next four years, as well when the “47%” comment has taken such a toll on him. And that’s why tonight’s debate could be so crucial to the presidential contest. It very well could be Romney’s last chance to change the trajectory of the race. And it gives Obama, whose 49% approval rating is at re-elect level, the opportunity to shut off his opponent’s last path to victory. 

*** Why the NBC/WSJ poll is mostly good news for Obama: In fact, the best news for Romney in the national NBC/WSJ poll is his likely-voter number. But the rest is good news for Obama. According to the survey, 44% believe that the economy will improve in the next 12 months -- that’s up two points from the last NBC/WSJ survey, eight points since August and a whopping 17 points since July. What’s more, 57% think that the U.S. economy is recovering, versus 39% who disagree with that notion. And four in 10 now say the country is headed in the right direction, which is the highest percentage on this question since June 2009. Given the increased economic optimism, Obama and Romney are nearly tied on which candidate would better handle the economy, with 45% picking Romney and 42% choosing Obama. But the president leads Romney on almost all other issues and character traits -- looking out for the middle class, handing the situation in the Middle East, handling immigration, dealing with Medicare, being a good commander in chief, handling foreign policy, and dealing with taxes. Romney, meanwhile, holds the edge on dealing with the federal budget deficit and dealing with the economic challenges that the U.S. faces from China. All of these numbers explain why Obama’s three-point lead looks so commanding.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney pauses while speaking at a campaign rally in Denver, Colorado October 1, 2012 ahead of his first debate with U.S. President Barack Obama.

*** Why the race is closer among likely voters: So why is the national race so close among likely voters (49%-46% versus Obama’s 51%-44% lead among registered voters)? We have a two-word answer for you: voter interest. Among the full universe of registered voters expressing the highest interest in the election, Obama and Romney are essentially tied, with Obama at 49% and Romney at 48%. And two key pillars of Obama’s political coalition -- Latinos and young voters -- are much less interested in the election than they were in 2008. “That helps to explain why it’s close among likely voters,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D). These numbers suggest that Romney would benefit from a low-turnout election, while Obama would benefit from higher turnout. Again, the cliché is true -- it all comes down to turnout. By the way, our national NBC/WSJ poll defines a likely voter as someone who registers a “9” or “10” in election interest on a 10-point scale AND who voted in 2008 and/or 2010. For younger Americans who weren’t of age to vote in ’08 or ’10, they must register as an “8,” “9,” or “10” in interest.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd takes a "deep dive" into key presidential debates in America's history.

*** “47%” takes a toll on Romney: As mentioned above, the national NBC/WSJ poll shows that the “47%” comment has taken a toll on Romney. After hearing a full description of that comment, 45% of registered voters said it gave them a more negative impression of the GOP presidential nominee, versus 23% who had a more positive view. (By contrast, when the same respondents were read a full description of Obama’s “You didn’t build that” line, 36% had a positive reaction and 32% had a negative reaction.) In addition, 51% say that what they’ve heard, seen, and read about Romney in the past couple of weeks gives them a less favorable impression of the former Massachusetts governor, compared with just 36% who say the same of Obama during that stretch of time. And Romney’s fav/unfav in the survey stands at 41%-44%. That’s lower than Obama’s own 52%-42% rating, and it’s lower than every other presidential nominee’s score at this similar point of time in the history of the poll – except for George H.W. Bush’s 34%-52% rating in Oct. 1992.

*** Does Romney think about pulling out of Ohio? Given our new NBC/WSJ/Marist polls of Florida, Ohio, and Virginia -- as well as our other state polls over the past few weeks -- here are Romney’s best opportunities to win a battleground (in order): NC, FL, CO, NV, VA, WI, IA, NH, and OH. With Iowa, New Hampshire, and Ohio all increasingly heading to Obama’s column, that puts the president at 265 electoral votes. As a result, it means that Romney must run the table on the remaining states (NC, FL, CO, NV, VA, WI) to get to 270. And it raises the question, especially if Romney is unable to change the race tonight: Does Romney consider pulling out of Ohio with its size and all of its media markets, to put those resources in the remaining states? It’s a question that Boston has to be pondering right now. By the way, out of all of our new state polls (of FL, OH, and VA), Romney appears to be the best shape in Florida – not only by margin (down one point), but also in Romney’s fav/unfav (46%-43%) and Obama’s job approval (48%)

*** Tonight’s debate format: Here’s the format for tonight’s 90-minute debate from Denver, CO that begins at 9:00 pm ET: “There will be no rigid time limits, buzzers or cheering that often threatened to turn the Republican primary debates into a recurring political game show. The debate will be divided into six segments of 15 minutes, with ample opportunity for robust exchanges and a level of specificity that both sides have often sought to avoid,” the New York Times writes. Both Obama and Romney will stand at podiums. Obama gets the first question, and Romney gets to speak last in the closing remarks. And while there are no rigid time limits during each segment, each candidate gets two minutes to answer the opening question; the rest is free-flowing.

*** Romney’s latest TV ad: The Romney campaign is up with a new TV ad that features Romney looking to the camera. (It’s essentially the one-minute ad that the campaign released a week ago, but it’s shortened to 30 seconds.) “Too many Americans today are struggling—living paycheck to paycheck,” Romney says. “More Americans live in poverty than when President Obama took office. We should measure our compassion by how many of our fellow Americans are able to get good paying jobs, not by how many are on welfare. My economic plan will get America back to work and strengthen the middle class. I’m Mitt Romney. I approve this message because we can’t afford another four years like the last four years.”

*** Be sure to pre-order this book: On Oct. 3, 2009, U.S. troops at Camp Keating in Afghanistan were attacked by hundreds of Taliban fighters, resulting in the bloodiest day of the year for our troops in that country. ABC's Jake Tapper -- our friend, colleague, and suffering Phillies fan -- has a book coming out next month about that attack, as well as the brave troops who served at the camp. And here is an excerpt of the book, "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor." The entire book comes out on Nov. 13. Go pre-order this now.

Countdown to VP debate: 8 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 13 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 19 days
Countdown to Election Day: 34 days

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