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First Thoughts: Marginal change

Headline from our new NBC/WSJ/Marist polls: A marginal -- but not substantial -- improvement for Romney since last week’s debate… In Ohio, Obama leads among those who have already voted by 2-to-1 margin… Tonight’s main event: Biden vs. Ryan… And College Man: Obama hits his fifth-straight college campus when he visits the University of Miami (FL) at 3:25 pm ET, while Romney campaigns in North Carolina at 6:00 pm ET.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd previews Thursday's high-stakes vice presidential debate.

DANVILLE, Ky. -- So how much did the political environment change after last week's presidential debate as we head into tonight's VP showdown here in Kentucky? According to our new NBC/WSJ/Marist polls of three of the most important battleground states, it changed at the margins -- but not substantially. A week ago, right before the debate, our NBC/WSJ/Marist poll of Florida had President Obama with a one-point lead among likely voters, 47%-46%; now it is still one point, 48%-47%. In Ohio, Obama was ahead by eight points; now it is by six, 51%-45%. And in Virginia, Obama had a two-point edge last week, 48%-46%; now it is Romney by one, 48%-47%. So our poll shows some improvement for the GOP presidential nominee, but we seem to be back to where we were before the conventions: It's a very close race with Obama still enjoying a structural edge in the battleground states. And why was there only a little change in these surveys -- conducted Oct. 7-9 -- since last week’s debate? These numbers probably tell the story: More than 90% of the likely voters in these three states say they made up their minds BEFORE the debate. Here is a question to be asked: Is Romney over-performing in national polls and under-performing in the battlegrounds? Sure seems like it.

Slideshow: Biden on the campaign trail

Slideshow: Ryan on the campaign trail

*** Other examples: Here are more examples of marginal change since the first debate, per our NBC/WSJ/Marist polls: Obama's favorable ratings remain above 50% in all three states among likely voters (51% in Ohio and Virginia and 52% in Florida), and his overall job-approval numbers among registered voters are near 50% (48% in Florida and Virginia and 47% in Ohio). Meanwhile, Romney saw his fav/unfav rating tick up in Florida and Virginia (to 49%-44%), but it still remains under water in Ohio (44%-50%). And brand-new New York Times/CBS/Quinnipiac polls also show a marginal improvement for Romney. In Colorado, it’s Romney 48% Obama 47% vs. Obama 48% Romney 47% from a month ago. But in Virginia, they have Obama ahead, 51-46% vs. what they had before, Obama 50% Romney 46%. And in Wisconsin, it’s Obama 50% Romney 47% vs. Obama 51% Romney 45%. Bottom line: There has been some battleground-state improvement for Romney, but not a significant amount. Essentially, we’re back to where things were before the conventions -- which is a close race that slightly favors the president. 

Charles Dharapak / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney takes a picture for well-wishers after an unscheduled stop at a Chipotle restaurant in Denver, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012.

*** A deep dive into Ohio: Our new NBC/WSJ/Marist poll also provides two explanations why Obama maintains his lead in the Buckeye State. One is early voting. According to the survey, nearly 1 in 5 respondents have already voted in Ohio, and Obama is winning them by a 63%-37% margin; among those who plan to vote on Election Day, Romney is leading, 52%-42%. What also helps to explain the president’s advantage is party ID. Last week, it was D+5 among likely voters; this week it’s D+11. But here is something else to chew on: 46% of likely voters in the survey describe themselves as conservative (when it was 35% in 2008, per the exit poll). So while the poll’s party ID in Ohio was more Democratic than last week, it was also much more conservative. Meantime, the NBC/WSJ/Marist poll of Virginia was more Republican. 

*** Biden vs. Ryan: Today’s main event, of course, is the Joe Biden-vs.-Paul Ryan debate here in Danville, KY. According to Pew, 40% expect Ryan to perform better in the debate, while 34% expect Biden to do better. Ryan also enjoys a stronger fav/unfav rating (44%-40%) than Biden does (39%-51%) in the survey. Our most recent national NBC/WSJ poll shows similar fav/unfav numbers: 37%-33% for Ryan and 37%-38% for Biden. As we wrote yesterday, Biden has more pressure on him going into the debate, but Ryan has the higher expectations, especially among base conservatives. And a question: Just how many will tune in to the debate? We’re putting the over-under at 40 million. Remember, there are two MLB playoff games tonight, as well as Steelers-Titans NFL football game.

Slideshow: On the Trail 

*** The skinny on tonight’s debate: Both Biden and Ryan will be seated. And moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC will ask questions built around nine topics (at 10 minutes per topic), and the questions will alternate between domestic and foreign policy. And that means Libya will come up. Here’s how Bloomberg describes yesterday’s congressional hearing on the topic: “Requests for additional security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, before the Sept. 11 attack were rejected by the State Department because of a desire to convey ‘normalization,’ the Republican chairman of a House panel [Darrell Issa] said.” Yesterday was not a good day for the Obama administration, nor the Clinton State Department. We still don’t know the basic answer to this question: Why, five days after the attack, did Susan Rice get briefed incorrectly? Obviously, some critics of the administration want to be believe the worst -- that it was on purpose. But do we really think the administration thought that story would hold? More troubling, it seems, was the intelligence failure, both on the front end (no warning) and on the backend (too long to figure out what happened). And it appears a lot of good old fashioned CYA – a legacy the intelligence community has been trying to shake for a decade.

*** College man: Before tonight’s debate, President Obama holds a rally at the University of Miami (FL) at 3:25 pm ET. By our count, this is the president’s FIFTH-straight event at a college campus in the past week -- the others were at the University of Wisconsin (WI), George Mason University (VA), Cleveland State (OH), and Ohio State (OH). Meanwhile, Romney campaigns in Asheville, NC at 6:00 pm ET.

*** The Senate numbers: Lastly, here are the Senate numbers from our new NBC/WSJ/Marist polls: In Florida, it’s Bill Nelson 52%, Connie Mack 39%; in Ohio, it’s Sherrod Brown 52%, Josh Mandel 41%; and in Virginia, it’s Tim Kaine 47%, George Allen 46%. 

Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 5 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 11 days
Countdown to Election Day: 26 days

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