WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's running mate shot down the need for a breakthrough in the first presidential debate Wednesday, trying to allay Republican concerns that the race is slipping away with five weeks to go and momentum on President Barack Obama's side.
Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan praised Obama's debating skills and called the Democratic incumbent "a very gifted speaker" with years of experience on the national stage. He played down signs that Obama is gaining distance in the most competitive states. Polls are tight, Ryan said, and will stay that way until the election Nov. 6.
"We're running against an incumbent president with incredible resources," Ryan said. "More importantly, I don't think one event is going to make or break this campaign."
Yet at the same time, a prominent Romney supporter said he expected Romney's performance in Denver on Wednesday night would shake up the campaign after a "tough couple of weeks." Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., predicted Romney would do "extraordinarily well" in the debate, and that come Thursday morning, "this whole race is going to be turned upside down."
Romney is trying to rebound from a difficult September, and the three October debates offer a chance to help show that the race is winnable. Christie, who passed on a 2012 run for the White House but is a possible contender in 2016, called the domestic policy and economic debate in Denver "the restart of this campaign."
That confidence from a high-profile backer comes even as Americans are growing more optimistic about the economy and Obama's leadership, creating a significant obstacle for Romney.
Polls show Obama with a steady lead in many of the nine states where the candidates are competing most fiercely. If the election were held today, an Associated Press analysis shows Obama would win at least 271 electoral votes, enough for re-election. The analysis is intended to provide a snapshot of a race that until recently has been stubbornly close in the small number of the most contested states.
Obama headed to Las Vegas for an evening rally and planned to stay in Nevada as he prepared for the debate. Accompanying him was a cadre of advisers assisting with debate prep, including chief of staff Jack Lew, top economic adviser Gene Sperling, pollster Joel Benenson and speechwriter Jon Favreau. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is playing Romney in debate prep, was traveling to Nevada separately.
Romney remained in Boston on Sunday, going through preparations of his own for Wednesday's event.
Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, said on "Fox News Sunday" that the debate would mark Romney's debut "on this kind of stage." Romney participated in more than two dozen multicandidate debates during White House runs in 2008 and 2012, and went one-on-one against Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., during a losing 1994 Senate bid.
"They expect to come out of this with the race fundamentally changed. Now, what does that mean?" asked David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser. "If it's going to fundamentally change, that means in seven or 10 days from now you'll see states like Ohio tied, the state of Iowa tied because that's what really matters here. So they have set the bar quite high."
Christie said Romney needs to "tell the truth about what's going on" in the country while laying out "a positive and hopeful vision for the future."
"I think he can do both. Listen, Mitt Romney can walk and chew gum at the same time. I'm not worried," Christie said.
Ryan acknowledged errors by the campaign but urged Republicans who are publicly carping to join him on the trail to witness the forceful case they're making.
"We've had some missteps, but at the end of the day, the choice is really clear," Ryan said, adding that up until now, he and Romney "have not been able to frame that choice as clearly."
The campaign has suffered from the release of a hidden-camera video of Romney calling 47 percent of Americans victims who depend on government help. Almost two weeks after the video's release, the matter continues to dog Romney, featuring prominently in Obama's campaign ads.
Republicans, meanwhile, continued challenging Obama's foreign policy, saying his approach had contributed to unrest across the Middle East. Ryan cited Syria, Iran, Russia and Israel as countries where the "ugly fruits" of Obama's policies are unraveling.
Romney, speaking to voters in a podcast released Saturday, faulted Obama for presiding over a decline in the nation's moral standing and a retreat of American leadership. "President Obama's foreign policy is one of passivity and denial," Romney said. "And that places America and our friends and allies at the mercy of events and those who mean to do us harm."
Ryan, looking ahead to his lone debate on Oct. 11, said he expected Vice President Joe Biden would be highly disciplined despite a reputation for verbal slip-ups,
"He's fast on the cuff. He's a witty guy. He knows who he is and he's been doing this for 40 years," said Ryan. "You're not going to rattle Joe Biden."
Plouffe appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and ABC's "This Week." Christie spoke on NBC, ABC and CBS' "Face the Nation."
Associated Press writer Julie Pace in Las Vegas contributed to this report. Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP