DENVER — Mitt Romney has one thing going for him headed into this week's first presidential debate with President Obama: Voters don't expect him to do very well.
The newest Washington Times/Zogby Poll, released Sunday, found twice as many voters think Mr. Obama will win Wednesday's kickoff affair as think Mr. Romney will win it — and among self-identified independents, it's even more pronounced.
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Most voters said they were happy with the format of the debate, which will feature Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney and exclude third-party and independent candidates. In fact that was one area on which both Republicans and Democrats generally agreed, while independents leaned slightly in favor of adding other candidates to the mix.
On the Sunday political talk shows, surrogates for both candidates tried to reset the expectations for the debate.
"President Obama is a very gifted speaker. The man has been on the national stage for many years. He's an experienced debater. He's done these kinds of debates before," said Rep. Paul Ryan, Republicans' vice presidential nominee, on "Fox News Sunday." "This is Mitt's first time on this kind of a stage. I think what people are going to see is, who is Mitt Romney?"
Indeed, the Times/Zogby poll found voters say they still don't have a grasp on Mr. Romney, despite the former Massachusetts governor having spent the last six years competing for the White House, losing the 2008 Republican nomination and then triumphing this year.
The poll asked voters to rank how well they felt they knew Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama on a scale of one to five, with five being "very well." Only 42 percent ranked Mr. Romney a four or five, while 71 percent ranked Mr. Obama a four or five.
The debates give Mr. Romney a chance to try to introduce himself to a broader audience, and analysts say the mere act of being onstage with the president serves to elevate the challenger in these affairs.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, an Obama backer, said given that, Mr. Romney should expect to see at least some movement in polls afterward.
"The challenger gets a big bump from the first debate," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "If there's no movement, if the polls two or three days after this debate, if those figures in the battleground states stay the same, it really is over."
In the Times/Zogby poll, 49 percent of voters said they expect Mr. Obama to win the debate, while just 26 percent thought Mr. Romney would triumph. Pessimism for the Republican's chances ran particularly high among independents, who gave Mr. Obama the nod, 46-17.
The poll of 800 likely voters, taken Thursday through Saturday, also showed voters prefer Mr. Obama by 50 percent to 41 percent over Mr. Romney.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of Mr. Romney's strongest backers throughout the campaign, said he expects the debate to fundamentally alter the race.
"What we need is a big and bold performance on Wednesday night, and that's what he's going to give us," the governor told ABC's "This Week" program. "This is the first moment where the American people are going to see these two guys side by side, laying out their visions unfiltered. That's going to be a powerful moment for Mitt Romney."
David Plouffe, Mr. Obama's senior political adviser at the White House, went to some lengths to set high expectations for Mr. Romney and try to lower them for the president.
He said he expects Mr. Romney to aim some "zingers" at the president, and said the Republican candidate comes into the debate more prepared "than any candidate in history."
Wednesday's debate will not feature any independent candidates such as former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee, who has tried to gain access.
Most Republicans and Democrats said it was OK to limit the people onstage to Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. Among independents, 49 percent said they preferred to see others let in, while 41 percent were content to let the two top-party candidates duke it out one-on-one.
Ben Wolfgang reported from Washington.
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