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Debate Night in America

Aired October 3, 2012 - 19:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is this the time to unleash our one-liners. That answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor, now --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are in the grip of a failed economic theory and this decision better be about what kind of economic theory you want.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got to answer this --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tell Tony Blair we're going alone. It denigrates an alliance to say we're going alone, to discount their sacrifices. You cannot lead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.



WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": We're counting down to the most important moment yet in this, the 2012 campaign.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "AC 360": President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney preparing to face off in their first presidential debate.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And here in Denver, the candidates know what happens on this debate stage certainly could help sway the election.


ANNOUNCER: A president struggling with a slow economy, hoping to boost confidence in his leadership.

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not fighting to create Democratic and Republican jobs, I'm fighting to create American jobs.

ANNOUNCER: A challenger rebounding in the polls trying to connect with everyday Americans.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The question is who can help the poor and the middle class. I can. He can't.

ANNOUNCER: After months of attacks on the campaign trial, it's time for these candidates to confront each other face-to-face.

OBAMA: We will win this election, we will finish what we started!

ROMNEY: I will do better than this president has done for the American people!

ANNOUNCER: In Colorado tonight, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in their first presidential debate.

ROMNEY: These debates are an opportunity for each of us to describe the pathway forward.

OBAMA: What I'm most concerned about is having a serious discussion about what we need to do to keep the country growing.

ANNOUNCER: Two men with different vision on issues voters care about most. Both of them (INAUDIBLE).

OBAMA: We certainly can't go very far with a leader who writes off half a nation (INAUDIBLE).

ROMNEY: He said he can't change Washington from the inside. He can only change it from outside. Well, we're going to give him that chance in November. He's going outside.

ANNOUNCER: Now CNN's coverage of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, side-by-side on big problems and tough choices. Will this night change an election that's just a month away?

ROMNEY: I need your help on November 6th.

OBAMA: If you still believe in me I'm asking for your vote.

ANNOUNCER: The nation is watching, voters want answers, and America's future is up for debate.


BLITZER: This is the University of Denver, where the presidential candidates could go a long way tonight toward winning or losing the White House. President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, they are both getting ready to take the stage and compete face-to-face for the first time in this campaign. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world to "Debate Night in America". I'm Wolf Blitzer. There's enormous pressure on President Obama and Governor Romney right now. The biggest challenges facing the country are on the line as well as the outcome of this election. Even the candidates' wives are feeling the stress. We have CNN exclusives tonight. Brand new interviews with Michelle Obama and Ann Romney. The first lady shared her debate anxiety with our Jessica Yellin.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: I get so nervous at these debates and you know, I'm like one of those parents watching their kid on the balance beam. You're just standing there just trying not to, you know, have any expression at all.


BLITZER: Ann Romney revealed to our Gloria Borger that she helped reassure her husband during past debates.


ANN ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S WIFE: And almost after every answer that he gives, he'll find me in the audience to see, was that good? Was that OK?


BLITZER: We're going to have much more on those interviews with Michelle Obama and Ann Romney as we count down to the debate. We're mobilizing the full resources of CNN for our coverage tonight. Let's bring in my colleague Anderson Cooper -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, Wolf, it's going to be an exciting night and during the debate, we are going to clock the candidates to see how much time they get to talk overall and about each specific issue and we'll get immediate reaction to what President Obama and Governor Romney are saying from a focus group of undecided Colorado voters. Their responses will look like this on your screen. You see them at the bottom of your screen going up and down. Obama and Romney need to impress undecided voters most. Tonight our John King is at the "Magic Wall" for us. John, zero in on the stage where the candidates hope to gain ground with this debate.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, the stakes enormous for both candidates, but the burden you would have to say is higher on the challenger, Mitt Romney trailing in the race for the 270 electoral votes it takes to win the White House. They're debating in one toss-up state tonight, Colorado. We call that a dead heat right now, but the president of late has taken the edge in Wisconsin, in Ohio, in Virginia and in Florida. Governor Romney needs to change this dynamic around because if the president were to keep just two of those four, he would be almost impossible to stop -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John, thank you. Let's go to the debate hall right now in Denver where our chief political correspondent Candy Crowley is standing by. She's one of the moderators in the 2012 presidential debate series. Candy, the focus tonight on domestic issues, especially the economy.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. This is parched into six, 15-minute segments, if you will. The first three --


CROWLEY: -- on health care, then on the role of government and then on governing. As you can see, very broad subjects would include, which would include any number of questions. Each candidate gets two minutes to answer an initial question and then the rest of the time in a 15-minute segment will be in discussing it. I want to bring in our Jessica Yellin now, our chief White House correspondent. Jessica, I know you've got an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how the president is preparing for these debates.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Candy. That's right. I'm told that right now President Obama is with the first lady. That's after he did a little bit of debate prep in his hotel room and now the two of them are relaxing at the hotel. Of course all of this came after the president had 72 very intense hours of virtual lockdown at a debate prep camp in Nevada.


YELLIN (voice-over): CNN has learned President Obama has been squeezing in his study time for this debate, reading late at night at the residence, working on Air Force One and cramming with advisers at the White House, but aides say in Washington it's never a top priority. To give him total debate immersion, the president's team took him to the Nevada desert.

OBAMA: Basically, they're keeping me indoors all the time. It's a drag.


OBAMA: They're making me do my homework.

YELLIN: His study hall was a sparse ballroom inside this hotel. No snacks, just bottled water. He got one afternoon break, Tuesday, it was a field trip to the Hoover Dam. Then it was back to debate prep late into the night. Inside the room, playing the role of moderator, drill master, debate expert and former Biden chief of staff, Ron Klain (ph). He was immortalized by Kevin Spacey in the HBO movie "Recount" for his die-hard intensity as Al Gore's lead lawyer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How hard is it to punch a paper ballot?

YELLIN: Standing in for Governor Mitt Romney, a man who was in the hot seat in his own run against President Bush, Senator John Kerry.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?

YELLIN: He told CNN the president has been out of practice.

KERRY: Last debate the president had was against John McCain. And he's had no debates in between and it just makes a difference. I can tell you from my own experience you need to be doing it and the president obviously has not been.

YELLIN: Back in 2008, the president had plenty of debate practice. Sometimes, it showed.

OBAMA: The straight talk express lost a wheel on that one.

YELLIN: Sometimes, it didn't.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's very likable. I, I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad --

OBAMA: You're likable enough.



YELLIN: That was a smack-down so unlike his nice guy image, the Obama team still considers it one of the standout errors of 2008. Tonight, his team says, the president will push Mitt Romney on specifics.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He comes to this debate with a heavy burden to finally put out those details of where he wants to take this country.

YELLIN: A message his sparring opponent echoes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And about substance?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They want to know. They want to know what's going on.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People are interested in you know the situation in America, the challenges we face. Sure.


YELLIN: Candy, today happens to be an important day for President Obama for another reason. It is the Obama's 20th wedding anniversary. No doubt they are having a wedding moment in the hotel saying hello to each other for the first time today. She wished him a happy anniversary from the campaign trail and I'm told that he will be taking her out to celebrate properly next Saturday -- Candy. CROWLEY: Hey, Jessica, you know I think people look at this piece and say wait a second, the president has been steeped in the issues for four years. No one should know them any better then he does. He's an eloquent speaker. What are they worried about? So, tell me what they're worried about.

YELLIN: Every president -- sitting president goes through this. Bill Clinton did it. George H.W. Bush did it, George W. Bush. The idea is to take a deep dive into one's own policies and also look at your opponent's policies and make sure that you're deeply well read into all the specifics so that if you come under attack, you can rebut them on the fly and so, nobody can be well versed in everything that you've done. I certainly don't remember what I did last year and I bet you don't either, every moment of it, so that's part of the goal. And then another part of it is to come up with those quote "zingers or moments", as much they say they're not doing it, you know they did it. And that's part of it, to come armed with some ready lines to throw out when you need them -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Yes. I'm not even sure I know what I did last week, so I get it. Thanks so much, our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. We want to go back now to Anderson Cooper in the CNN Election Center.

COOPER: Candy, I can't remember what I did yesterday. I mean here with CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger, David Gergen. Let's talk about who has the edge you think going into tonight's debate.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Anderson, a year ago, you would have said that Romney would have had the edge because Obama has to defend his lousy jobs record. He's got these huge deficits he's been running, but he's run a better campaign, so he comes in tonight I think with an advantage and that is he's still ahead. The structure of the race favors him. He's got a better ground game and very importantly, because of Romney's mistakes in the campaign, Romney has to do a lot more in this debate tonight than the president does. The president can simply tell his story again, so you don't want to go back, here is the choice. Romney has got to do for the first time -- go back to something James said earlier and Alex said -- he's got to actually lay out what his plan is for the next four years. He has not done that effectively so far. It's got to be compelling. He has (INAUDIBLE) the president and he has to get his likability numbers up. That's a lot to do in one debate.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well you know senior Romney advisers I say is it about likability and they say not quite. What it's really about is talking to what they call the 3Ds, dissatisfied, disappointed and disenchanted Obama voters. And so it's about convincing them that over the next four years, you will do a better job to improve their lives.

COOPER: So they think they can win over --

BORGER: President Obama did the last --

COOPER: -- some Obama voters.

BORGER: That's -- well what they're looking for is those, that narrower and narrower slice of swing voters. I mean he's got a double job to do --

GERGEN: Yes --

BORGER: -- because --

GERGEN: He had a convention speech and he wasn't able to do it --

BORGER: Well that's --


BORGER: Well and that's why he's got to do it tonight.


BORGER: That's why he's got to do it tonight. That's why he's got to do it tonight --

GERGEN: That's why it's hard --

BORGER: So but he's got a double job. He's got to talk to those swing voters who are disaffected about President Obama, but then he also has to make sure his base turns out and he's got to get the base enthusiastic. Now, what the base wants and what those swing voters want may be two different things --

COOPER: But how many people are still undecided at this point? I mean --

BORGER: This many.


GERGEN: But there are still people who are persuadable.

BORGER: Right.

GERGEN: They are leaning Romney or they're leaning --

COOPER: But if you look at history have debates really persuaded those people --

BORGER: Yes. So they have. I mean if you look -- I was just looking back at 2004, for example. John Kerry, going into that first debate, was seven points behind. After that first debate, he was only two points behind. Now, of course, we all know he ended up losing because President Bush came back and did a better job in the second debate. But it did narrow the gap for John Kerry.


BORGER: It certainly can.

COOPER: All right. We're learning that Mitt Romney's debate preparations get kind of mean at times. We're going to hear from Michelle Obama and Ann Romney on their debate advice for their husbands. One of them gets emotional. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Welcome back to "Debate Night in America". There you see the stage in Denver, Colorado where both candidates will soon be facing off for the first time in this most important night of the election so far. The presidential candidates will soon be taking that stage. President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney have been holed up for days now to practice for tonight's face-off. Our Dana Bash has been working her sources. You've been hearing in terms of the Romney debate preparations, they've gotten pretty intense at times.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They have gotten pretty intense. In fact, I was told that they had their high voltage mock debate prep sessions up until just two days ago. But for the past couple of days since Romney got to Denver yesterday, they took it down several notches. In fact it was all about fine tuning in a more relaxed setting in Romney's hotel room. Romney's son, Tag, tweeted a picture of what he called the brain trust meeting in that relaxed setting. You can see them there. A Romney campaign source tells me they worked especially hard on trimming his answers on critical issues so that he would come tonight armed with what a source called a quote "single sentence to capture something important".


BASH (voice-over): CNN has learned that Mitt Romney's mock debate sessions are two and a half hours long, an hour more than the actual debate will last. The reason, Romney sources say debate prep is so intense, his aides carve out breaks for him to decompress with his family. Inside Romney's debate boot camp, moderator Jim Lehrer is played by long-time adviser Peter Flaherty. At the opposing podium, President Obama is played by GOP Senator Rob Portman, who spoke exclusively to CNN.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have to be a little mean sometimes and kind of you know try to get under their skin.

BASH: Portman is the Republican's go-to guy. In 2000, he played Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. In 2004, John Edwards and in 2008, he was so in character as Barack Obama, he really upset John McCain's wife.

(on camera): You have to tell me the story about Cindy McCain running out of the room crying.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: Cindy McCain who I love and she was very good about attending the debate preps and you know being with John. At one point, literally walked out of the debate prep and I mean she marched out. I mean we knew she was walking out on purpose because I was going after her husband. BASH: It was too much for her to take.

PORTMAN: It was a little too much. She still doesn't like me to this day.

BASH (voice-over): Romney's been getting that Portman treatment for more than a month.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: After the, you know hour and a half or so is over, I like -- I want to you know kick him out of the room --

BASH: Sources close to Romney say this is his danger zone, his tendency to get defensive, which produces gaffes. Remember this?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was true then.

ROMNEY: No, no --


ROMNEY: Rick, I'll tell you what --


ROMNEY: Ten thousand bucks?

BASH: We reviewed Romney performances with his debate coach during the GOP primaries.

(on camera): Is Mitt Romney coachable when it comes to that?

BRETT O'DONNELL, FORMER ROMNEY DEBATE COACH: Absolutely. Absolutely. He was -- he's a great student of political debate. He works very hard at it.

BASH (voice-over): Brett O'Donnell says CNN's Jacksonville debate is proof Romney is a quick study. Watch this exchange on immigration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All I want to do is allow the grandmother to be here legally with some rights.


ROMNEY: Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers. Our problem is --



(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: Hey welcome back to our continuing debate night coverage. We obviously had a technical problem. Want to show you Dana Bash's piece taking a look at how Governor Mitt Romney has been preparing for the debate tonight. Let's take a look.


BASH (voice-over): CNN has learned that Mitt Romney's mock debate sessions are two and a half hours long, an hour more than the actual debate will last. The reason, Romney sources say debate prep is so intense, his aides carve out breaks for him to decompress with his family. Inside Romney's debate boot camp, moderator Jim Lehrer is played by long-time adviser Peter Flaherty. At the opposing podium, President Obama is played by GOP Senator Rob Portman, who spoke exclusively to CNN.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have to be a little mean sometimes and kind of you know try to get under their skin.

BASH: Portman is the Republican's go-to guy. In 2000, he played Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, in 2004, John Edwards and in 2008, he was so in character as Barack Obama, he really upset John McCain's wife.

(on camera): You have to tell me the story about Cindy McCain running out of the room crying.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: Cindy McCain who I love and she was very good about attending the debate preps and you know being with John. At one point, literally walked out of the debate prep and I mean she marched out. I mean we knew she was walking out on purpose because I was going after her husband.

BASH: It was too much for her to take.

PORTMAN: It was a little too much. She still doesn't like me to this day.

BASH (voice-over): Romney's been getting that Portman treatment for more than a month.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: After the, you know hour and a half or so is over, I like -- I want to you know kick him out of the room --

BASH: Sources close to Romney say this is his danger zone, his tendency to get defensive, which produces gaffes. Remember this?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was true then.

ROMNEY: No, no --


ROMNEY: Rick, I'll tell you what -- (LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: Ten thousand bucks?

BASH: We reviewed Romney performances with his debate coach during the GOP primaries.

(on camera): Is Mitt Romney coachable when it comes to that?

BRETT O'DONNELL, FORMER ROMNEY DEBATE COACH: Absolutely. Absolutely. He was -- he's a great student of political debate. He works very hard at it.

BASH (voice-over): Brett O'Donnell says CNN's Jacksonville debate is proof Romney is a quick study. Watch this exchange on immigration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All I want to do is allow the grandmother to be here legally with some rights.


ROMNEY: Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers. Our problem is --


BASH (on camera): Why was that so powerful?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because it took Gingrich's argument and showed the absurdity in one line.

BASH (voice-over): CNN is told there is a ritual to Romney's debate prep. After each session, Romney's inner circle including Beth Myers (ph), Stewart Stevens (ph) and Ed Gillespie spend hours going over Romney's answers with him to see how he can improve. And it's not just what he says, it is how he acts and reacts.

PORTMAN: And you have to figure out how they're likely to express themselves, you know, what the body language is going to be like.

BASH: Portman learned that in 2000 getting ready to play Al Gore by watching his debate tape.

PORTMAN: He got kind of physical, you know, he sort of stood up like this, and Bill Bradley (ph) is a pretty big guy but Al Gore kind of got right in his face and so in the debate preps with Governor George W. Bush -- this is in 2000 -- I did that. And Governor Bush's reaction was of course he's not going to do that. That's ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But can he get things done?

BASH: But that's exactly what Gore did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I believe I can. BASH (on camera): Did he actually practice a nod or did you just --

PORTMAN: Well no he didn't take it seriously --

BASH: -- warn him that he was going to physically approach him.

PORTMAN: Yes. I think the point is that Governor Bush was ready for it and that was not a high point for Vice President Gore.


COOPER: That's fascinating, that they knew that Gore was going to try to sort of physically approach him.

BASH: That's right. As Senator Portman said, it's because he spent so much time studying Al Gore at the time, studying his debates with Bill Bradley (ph) from the primary season that year that he watched how he got --

COOPER: That's really fascinating --

BASH: -- really invaded his personal space.

COOPER: Research -- it's all about research. So how does Governor Romney -- we know how he now has been preparing the last couple of days and weeks. How does he prepare in these last hours or last day or so?

BASH: Well we're told -- we're told that tonight he went to the Cheesecake Factory with four of his sons, who are out in Denver, and some of his grandchildren. But you know his aides say is that in the hours before what is critical for him is to get into the green room, to just be with his family and some of his friends and to have levity, and to have relaxation. And that is the most important thing to get psychologically ready, to just be relaxed.

COOPER: So, he doesn't need to be by himself and just sit and focus. He likes to be around some people.

BASH: No. They say that it's important for him to be around his family because he's very close to them, but the one other interesting tidbit is that right before all of his debates, at least during the primary season, he had a moment alone with his wife, Ann, and they prayed before he went on stage.

COOPER: Really interesting -- Dana, thanks very much for reporting --

BASH: Thank you.

COOPER: Now when the presidential candidates take the stage soon for their first debate, first lady Michelle Obama has admitted she will be nervous. We have a CNN exclusive for you, brand new interviews with the presidential candidates' wives, the pressure of preparing for debates. The pressure for them, not just for their husbands. We hear from the first lady in a moment, but first, Gloria Borger asked Ann Romney about her husband's debate (INAUDIBLE).


BORGER: So, how does he prepare for what is essentially the most important job interview of his life, this debate?

ANN ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S WIFE: His whole life has been a preparation for him being where he is right now. His whole life has been an experience of working in very troubled situations, turning around troubled situations. His whole life has been in the private economy. He understands job creation. He understands the difficulties of an economic decline. He understands what's missing in an economic recovery, so for those kinds of things, you cannot teach him. It's in his bones. But for the -- for current events, everything else like that, I know he's got briefing books. I know he's studying. The guy does his homework. He really does do his homework.

And he's very thorough. He has to understand a situation and I see sometimes and I haven't watched a lot of this debate prep, but in previous debate preps, where he is the devil's advocate, even for his staff that is giving him information. And he's like prove this to me or I need to understand these numbers. He makes everyone around him be as on their toes and as sharp and as prepared as anything.


COOPER: We're going to have more of Gloria's interview with Ann Romney at the top of this hour, in about half an hour from now. It really is interesting how they are such a team and on a debate like -- debate night like tonight, it's really both of them who are -- I mean have their (INAUDIBLE).

BORGER: Ann Romney it seems to me has become more and more of an important surrogate to her husband in this campaign and I think she's taking it more and more personally that every time Mitt Romney is criticized she steps out there to defend his character

What she was talking about in that piece in terms of debate prep, she really knows him very well because Dana was talking about it in her piece, which is Mitt Romney has no problem with looking at all of the information, taking it all in. It's on a spreadsheet in front of him.

The problem they have with Mitt Romney is that he does do all of his homework and the problem they have is that he's got to learn to winnow it down to digestible bites for the American public so he can point to these three ways he would change energy policies.

COOPER: And yet, that's the difficulty with one of these debates, because all along, people are saying, look, we haven't heard a lot of specifics in this campaign and they're hoping in the debates to get more specifics. So you have to balance the desire for specifics, for putting meat on the bones, so to speak.

BORGER: Right. COOPER: And also, for (INAUDIBLE).

GERGEN: Anderson, problem with this kind of approach is narrowing down and getting in a little box here in three points is that the debates by nature should be more conversational. This is a really conversation with people at home. That's particularly true of the format we're seeing tonight.

What you found say with a master debater like Ronald Reagan was he would get two or three facts he wanted to walk into an answer, but it would be really -- he then build a conversation around the facts and that actually appealed to people more. They don't want to hear a rat-tat-tat.

COOPER: And that's what the debates have become, very thought and point --

GERGEN: Exactly.

BORGER: That's what Mitt Romney is used to. So, for the people who say he's had an advantage because he's done 20 debates, he did with 20 debates with lots of other people on the stage. This is a very different kind debate.

COOPER: It's completely different dynamic both for the --


COOPER: -- the moderator as well.

Let's take a look. We got another interview also with Michelle Obama. We're going to hear more from Ann Romney right now.

Let's go to Wolf -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Anderson, thanks very much.

First lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, and the anxiety she feels during these kinds of debates. Here's part of her exclusive interview with our Jessica Yellin.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: I get so nervous at these debates and you know, I'm like one of those parents watching their kid on the balance beam. You just standing there, just trying not to, you know, have any expression at all.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I've read that before a speech, you tell him have fun. But it's a little different because it's more of a competition, more like a game of one- on-one. What's your motivational advice to him before --

OBAMA: You know, he doesn't need much advice. I mean, he's been doing this for quite sometime, so he knows the job. So he knows the job. He's been doing it for quite sometime. He's a very good debater.

So I do tell him to have fun and relax and just be himself because the truth is, if he's the Barack Obama the country has come to know and trust, he's going to do a great job.

YELLIN: Now, some of his aides have said one of his challenges is to keep the answers short and I know that you have said that you critique his speeches afterwards.

OBAMA: Oh, no, I don't critique his speeches afterwards, actually. I give him, you know, I give him my positive reinforcement.

YELLIN: Only positive?

OBAMA: Generally, yes, because he's a great speaker, you know? I mean, he's good at this. So --

YELLIN: So, do you think he has any challenges going in?

OBAMA: You know, I haven't really, I'd have to think about that afterwards, but going into it, I think he's going to do his best.


BLITZER: Jessica's joining us now from Denver.

I know we're going to have more of this interview in the next hour, Jessica. But have they seen each other day, the president and first lady yet?

YELLIN: You know, they just met up. The president and first lady were in Nevada today, both in the same state, but did not see each other, even though it's their 20th wedding anniversary. She had to wish him "happy anniversary, honey" from a campaign stop in Reno. So, she said it from a campaign --

BLITZER: Obviously, we got a little technical issue -- going on.

Jessica, stand by for a moment. The full interview coming up right at the top of the hour.

I'm going to -- I know our viewers are going to want to see that and hear it. We have exclusive interviews with both the first lady and Ann Romney. The full interviews, as I said, coming up at the top of the hour.

But let's go to Candy right now. She's out in Denver as well.

Candy, where will the wives be actually sitting in this debate hall?

Think we just lost candy. Unfortunately. Candy, we'll get her back. We're having some technical issues out there. We're watching what's going on.

Many of us will be watching to be the tonight for one standout moment potentially that could help change the outcome of the election.

Our John King is over at the magic wall looking at some of the most powerful debates these changes have had over the years and they've been pretty powerful.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And the question is, will there be a game-changing moment tonight? Will there be one, will there be two, will there be more?

Let's go back in history and take a look, Wolf, and let's start with 1980. Watch the Carter-Reagan race play out in the polls right here. This was their one and only debate. And if you look at it, Ronald Reagan had come from behind and actually moved slightly ahead of Jimmy Carter. The question was: was he up to it? Was this actor ready to be president?

A lot of people think this was the moment that sealed the deal.


RONALD REAGAN, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?


KING: Ronald Reagan there sealing the deal in his debate against Jimmy Carter.

Let's come back in time now -- forward in time to 1992. You had the three-way race. Remember -- Bush, Clinton and Ross Perot. In this second debate, George W. Bush is behind. He needs very much as the incumbent to have a game-changing moment. Instead, though, instead of something that work in his favor, there was this moment when people thought he was disinterested and couldn't connect.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, how has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I think the national debt affects everybody. Obviously, it has a lot to do with interest rates. It has --

MODERATOR: She's saying you personally.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On a personal basis. How has it affected you?

MODERATOR: Has it affected you personally?

BUSH: I'm sure it has. I love my grandchildren.


BUSH: I want to think they're going to be able to afford an education.


KING: President Bush there unable to connect with that voter, excuse me, looking at the watch, a lot of people at home found that disrespectful to be at that setting.

Fast forward to 2000, the Bush-Gore race, we know how close it was at the end. Look at the gyrations in this race. This was right after the Republican convention. George W. Bush goes up. Al gore gets back in the hunt after his convention.

They come to the first debate with Gore ahead, but this is when he sighed so much, he rolled his eyes. Look, Al Gore comes down.

In the second debate, that moment you talked about a few moments ago, Rob Portman filling in for Al Gore prepared George W. Bush for this.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: People -- that's what the question in this campaign is about. It's not only what's your philosophy and what's position on issues, but can you get things done? And I believe I can.

AL GORE, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: What about the Dingell- Norwood bill?


KING: Priceless moment there from George W. Bush. He went on very narrowly, of course, but he built his lead after that debate and kept it until the end.

And then more recently in 2004, George W. Bush running for re- election again, this was a very competitive, close race with John Kerry for a long time. After the first debate, George W. Bush came down. A lot of people said that he was shaky in that debate, didn't answer a question about the Iraq war very well.

But then he stabilized the race a little bit and in the end, in the final debate, look at this, almost tied coming in, Bush starts to pull away, but a strong last debate performance where he made a connection on faith.


GEORGE W. BUSH: Very personal. I pray for strength, I pray for wisdom, I pray for our troops in harm's way, I pray for my family, I pray my little girls. Prayer and religion sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency.


KING: Calmness in the storms of the presidency for George W. Bush. He went on then from that debate to keep his lead and to win that election.

That was a third debate recovery, if you will, Anderson, what we're going look for tonight to see whether any candidate could have a game-changing break the race open moment in the big debate number one.

COOPER: Yes, let's talk about some of those moments with our CNN contributors, many of whom have actually helped with debate or debate preparation experience.

Alex, you were talk about how critical those moments are and we already know what some of those may be tonight.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Oh, I think one moment we should all look for is when we see Barack Obama's campaign strategy come to life. He's been saying Mitt Romney, you've got nothing new. You're George Bush. You want to go back to the policies that got us into this mess.

Mitt Romney's going to be tested in that moment. And either he says, no, let me tell you what's different, let me tell you what I'm going to change, let me tell you how this country's going to move forward. That's going to be a test tonight.

Neither of these candidates, by the way, owns an important word in an economy in a recession -- growth. Somebody can walk out of this debate saying, I'm the candidate of growth. That would be tremendous. It could change everything.

COOPER: James?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: As little boxing fans say, there's a third man in the ring. There's Jim Lehrer. And I think this is his 13th presidential debate, and what I think that he's going to try to do is get these guys talking to each other a little bit.

And you notice some sort of acrimony between the two of them about the sort of honesty at a spot, and that kind of thing, and I kind of hope that's what we see. I'd like to see a little scuffle between the two of them and defend some of the things they've said and have Jim Lehrer be able to do that.

I give you one more thing from the standpoint of us watching this. You got to remember what John (INAUDIBLE) was about the contest. It's not who you think is the prettiest girl. It's who you think the judges think is the prettiest girl.

So, when we're looking at this, we've got to try to react to the way we think the public has reacting to this, not the way we personally would react to it ourselves because we're partisan political people, probably in the case of David and Gloria, watch this a lot closer than average person. So, what I'm going to be trying to do tonight is seeing how I think the public would react to the scenes.

COOPER: Do candidates like talking to one another or do they try to resist it as much as possible?

CARVILLE: No, they don't like it too much because things can go wrong. The public likes it because you're sitting there complaining about this guy, saying these things about him -- well, he's right here, why don't you tell him what you exactly think. I think the public thinks that's a very kind of fair thing to do.

COOPER: But arguing over who's telling the truth or not -- I mean, they can both point fingers on a number of different issues. Do people kind of check out on that?

CARVILLE: It depends on how you do it. It depends on how you do it.

VAN JONES, FOIRMER OBAMA SPECIAL ADVISOR: I think what voters are looking for is the character of the two people. A lot of time, they'll be arguing about stuff. Frankly, the voters don't necessarily know the difference between this part of health care, that part.

They're trying to figure out, who do I trust? Who do I believe? And it's very easy -- you know, you're talking to your friend in the corner, then the guy you're talking about walks up. How do you respond? How do you react? That's going to be in people's mind today.

CARLY FIORINA, VICE CHAIR, NATIONAL GOP SENATORIAL CMTE.: But I also think -- we've been talking a lot about the fact that Romney needs to provide specifics and I agree, but frankly, I think President Obama needs to provide specific. This is a man who has been saying for four years, actually it's going to get better. It hasn't. His plan is taxing millionaires and billionaires. His plan to improve education is to invest in the Department of Education, which demonstrably hasn't worked for 30 years.

So the president also has to provide some real specifics here about what is going to be different from his last administration.


JONES: Sure. One of the things that's going to be important for this president as he comes out there, in this Twitter cycle, people have short memories. Where were we four years ago? Four years ago, the entire country was afraid -- we would be now, four years later, in a Great Depression.

This guy volunteers to be captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg and we're still floating. That's a part of the context he has to remind the American people of.


FIORINA: But I must say, that's a flawed premise. It's a flawed premise. COOPER: Let's not get over these talking points right now because we got hours to do this. I got to take a break.

Alex, you say not specifics.

CASTELLANOS: I think we lie. We tell pollsters we want specifics. Mitt Romney has a 59-point plan.

We don't want specifics. We want a vision. Tell us what big thing you're going to do to change.

COOPER: All right. Our reality check team is warming up for tonight's debate, and we've already caught one of the candidates making a misleading claim. First, this debate flashback.


MODERATOR: Thank you, President Ford. And thank you, Governor Carter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In 1976, when Ford was running against Carter, he was asked a question about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

GERALD FORD, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He answered it incomprehensibly, not fully understanding perhaps what the question was or having his own mind on the question. And, unfortunately, what happened for Ford this thing just got parodied, talked about, and became a huge event.



BLITZER: Crowd is beginning to walk into the debate hall at the University of Denver. They are getting ready for this first of three presidential debates. There will be one vice presidential debate as well. The pressure is clearly mounting on both of these candidates.

One of the interesting things we're watching tonight will be -- will the candidates get the same amount of time to talk during the debate? And if not, what will that affect -- how will that affect the voter's opinions?

Look at what happened four years ago. Watch this.

Barack Obama spoke more than two minutes longer than John McCain during the second debate in 2008. And during the third debate, there was an even bigger gaffe. Obama talked a full five minutes longer than McCain.

One major reason for the extra time Obama received was the rebuttal time for McCain's numerous attacks. We're going to see what tonight's exchange brings especially since tonight's moderator promised more interaction between these two candidates.

Candy's back over at the debate hall in Denver watching all of this unfold.

It's getting crowded. I understand behind you, Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. You're beginning -- think wedding right now. You're beginning to see folks come into this hall and on one side will be the Obama campaign supporters and on the other side will be the Romney campaign supporters or at least in those front rows.

Again, we see people like Nancy Pelosi is here et cetera. You'll see the wives sort of right in -- the podiums are tilted. So, President Obama will actually, he'll be this way. President Obama will be looking at his wife who's sitting on this side and Mitt Romney will be looking at his wife sitting on the Republican side.

So they have the wives right, that's the first person they're going to see when they look down in those front row seats.

There are also seats behind me which are -- I'm sorry, in front of me, but behind you, the cameras can't see them -- that are beginning to fill in. But, you know, there's another part to this entire scene, Wolf, and that is something very familiar, the spin room. We don't even pretend that either side is telling us what they really think about the debates.

We go ahead and called it the spin room for many, many elections. Our Jim Acosta is there.

And, Jim, obviously, the point here is to kind of fill that room post-debate with a lot of big names that reporters can talk to, to kind of get their take.


You know, one of the misconceptions out there is that all of us in the media are watching this debate from inside the hall. Unfortunately, there's just not enough space in there. So what they do with the rest of us is they put us in this giant spin room.

And you can see as we were standing inside the University of Denver, our photographers perched atop some scaffolding so we can give you this bird's eye view. But just about every major news organization around the world is positioned inside the spin room right now, Candy. There are also members of the Romney traveling press corps, members of the White House press corps. My colleague Jessica Yellin is off to my right.

Let me just show some of the atmospherics in here. The Romney campaign, along with the RNC, has set up a booth here, Candy. This is where they'll be live shots with different news organizations, so you'll be seeing some of that later on tonight. And just to give you some housekeeping as to what's happening right now, Candy, I can tell you that according to the press pool reporters traveling with Mitt Romney right now, the GOP contender and his wife, Ann Romney, are en route to the University of Denver debate site right now. They just wrapped up dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, we can report.

And I have talked to some Romney campaign officials, you know, getting back to all this talk of zingers and game-changing moments. We've been told by the Romney campaign, don't speak Mitt Romney to go for a knockout punch tonight. It seems like they might try to play it a little more cautious. Of course, Candy, that could be a head fake.

Back to you.

CROWLEY: Jim, that wide shot gave us a pretty idea of how big that room is. I want to go -- you mentioned that Jessica was to the right of you. So I want to bring her in from her perspective in the spin room.

I'm assuming that there is an equal and opposite place that they will bring the Obama people into, to talk about how well he did.

YELLIN: Yes, Candy, just as you predicted, and I'm also standing with a lot of the gathered media here, and this is where members of the press sit and where the White House traveling press comes in. And if it's a little sparse, it's because people are still going out to get dinner right now, but they'll all sit and watch on these monitors you see behind me, behind each of these University of Denver signs. It's a TV monitor.

Right over this way is where the Obama team surrogates gather, and their area is curtained off, but I can tell you that they are in there doing television interviews, and what I'm already hearing is that they do not plan for the president to come here and attack Mitt Romney. But as you've heard all along, lay out facts and drill for specifics. And the word right now is he is relaxing and taking it easy -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Thanks to our Jessica Yellin, chief White House correspondent.

So, Anderson, the bottom line her is there is pre-spin, there will be post-spin. You will not lack for opinions after this debate is over, Anderson.

COOPER: I love, Candy, the fact they even call it the spin room. Like they just admit it -- everyone is lying.

CROWLEY: I know.

COOPER: Everyone is just making stuff up, or just spin. They don't call it the truth room. It's just a spin room, a design. It's crazy. I don't know why we're in there.

Candy, we'll come back to you. Undecided voters in Colorado are ready to rate the candidates' debate performances and tell us if they are closer to making up their minds. And First Lady Michelle Obama explains to CNN why the timing of this debate could be better.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: This is the motorcade carrying Mitt Romney, bringing Mitt Romney to the University of Denver, to the debate hall where they are getting ready for the debate. You can see the motorcade arriving, you see supporters I guess of both candidates outside.

They're getting ready for this -- the first presidential debate of this season. Critically, critically important as this race appears to be narrowing in several of those key battleground states, Mitt Romney arriving at the debate hall.

We're watching -- we're getting closer and closer to the first debate between President Obama and Governor Romney. People across the country will be watching, but the candidates are most concerned about swaying those battleground state voters who haven't yet made up their minds.

CNN has put together a focus group of undecided voters from Colorado, the state that's hosting the debate tonight. We're going to be watching their reaction to the candidates in real time.

Erin Burnett is with the focus group over at the University of Denver. She's joining us now.

Erin, tell us about this focus group.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Wolf, these are people -- look, anyone who is watching tonight, all of you are busy, you're taking time out of your lives to watch this. Well, imagine taking the time to come here, sit in person and dial test this, every single word that each of these candidates say.

These are people who are passionate about voting but are still undecided -- a small group of Americans very important to deciding the election. Wolf says they are undecided.

Let me tell you, the other thing about this group of people that matters -- how many of you are going to vote?

Every single one. Every single one and every voter, we've got 39 people in this room, 21 women, 18 men.

And, Wolf, let me tell you a little bit about them, because they really are a cross section. We've got teachers in here. We have people who are unemployed and looking for work. We have entrepreneurs and small business owners; people who work in health care. We have retired people. So, every single issue that's going to come up tonight in this debate, focus on the economy, focus on health care, focus on domestic policy, is something that people in this room care passionately about.

So, Wolf, here's how it's going to work. They're going to be sitting here and listening to the debate. Some of our viewers by now may be familiar with this dial. This is a dial where they are literally on a scale from zero to 100, they will score everything you here.

There will be moments when Mitt Romney does terribly and does terribly well. And the same with Barack Obama they will score it and we'll see if those are the moments that move how they're going to vote.

Now, as we said, everyone in this room is undecided. But will they be undecided at the end of the debate? And, Wolf, that's the big question. You heard John King say, can a debate be a game-changer? Well, is it going to be game-changer tonight? I think you're going to see that in this room.

So, we're going to be sitting with these 39 people who -- thank you so much for taking time out of your night to come and do this -- and that's what we're going to be doing as we watch the debate, Wolf. Back to you.

BLITZER: We're going to see their reaction at the bottom of the screen, during that entire 90-minute debate that's coming up. Erin, thanks very, very much.

We also, by the way, measured the reaction of undecided voters to the presidential debates four years ago, and look at this. These colored lines show us how they respond to the green line represents men, and the yellow women, and you can see the ups and downs, across the night we'll tally them as we go along.

Here are some of the totals, by the way, from the second debate back in 2008. Obama had the most high points that night, 16 in all, twice as many as McCain. Obama with the fewest lows, also by the way, only two compared to McCain's nine.

Undecided voters giving Obama a clear edge. We're going to see who has that edge later tonight.

And CNN's coverage of debate night in America continues right now.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama face off in their first presidential debate in issues that hit Americans close to home.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: When it comes to the economy, the president has already thrown in the white flag of surrender. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've got a lot more folks who have to get back to work. But the question is: whose plan is better for you?

ANNOUNCER: The president, still trying to deliver on his first- term promises.

OBAMA: Change is going to take more than one term or one president or one party.

ANNOUNCER: The challenger, still trying to prove to skeptics he can change the game.

ROMNEY: Polls go all over the place, one thing I do know is that this is a very tight race.

ANNOUNCER: Both candidates getting plenty of advice, even from their wives.