Call it the built-in gravitas gap: President Obama flies the country in a grand 747, cruises in plush limousines adorned with American flags, and speaks from the White House Rose Garden, while his campaign opponent, Mitt Romney, flies in a smaller MD-83 passenger jet, rides in nondescript SUVs and makes speeches at factories and strip malls.
But on Wednesday that gap is closed, even if just for 90 minutes, when voters see the two men stand on the same stage together and go head-to-head in the first presidential debate of the campaign.
“Debates are an equalizer for challengers because there are no office trappings on stage,” said Darrell M. West, director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “It is two people answering questions, and voters can reach their own impressions without outside filtering.”
That can’t come soon enough for the Republican presidential nominee, who after running neck-and-neck with Mr. Obama in the polls has now fallen behind.
Mr. Obama also has a lead in nearly every battleground state, according to Real Clear Politics’ averages of polls, including those taken in Colorado, which plays host to Wednesday’s debate at the University of Denver.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that he has “never known a challenger that didn’t long for debates.”
“It is the only chance to go toe to toe with the incumbent and look just as presidential as he can,” Mr. Sabato said.
That helped Sen. John F. Kerry close a gravitas gap in 2004 with incumbent President George W. Bush, who was running as a wartime leader with troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr. Kerry’s camp said after the first debate that being on stage with the president helped elevate the Democratic candidate because Mr. Kerry was able to handle the same questions and engage in a back-and-forth with the president.
With that experience, Mr. Kerry has been helping Mr. Obama prepare for the debates, playing the role of Mr. Romney in practice.
Mr. Romney has tapped Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a former trade ambassador and White House budget chief under Mr. Bush, to play the role of Mr. Obama.
Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have hunkered down over the past couple of days to prepare — Mr. Obama in Henderson, Nev., and Mr. Romney already in Denver — but each candidate has managed to squeeze in time away from their practice sessions.
Mr. Obama, whose camp has said he hasn’t had as much time to prepare as he would have liked, took a tour of the Hoover Dam and marveled at his guide’s revelation that most of the electricity produced goes to power Southern California.
For his part Mr. Romney snagged a burrito bowl with Mr. Portman at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in the outskirts of Denver, where the company is headquartered.
On Wednesday, both candidates will do private walkthroughs of the debate site beforehand, then likely lay low until the evening affair — 90 minutes in front of the same audience, facing the same television cameras and fielding questions from the same moderator — in this case PBS newsman Jim Lehrer.