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High-stakes presidential debate draws political world to Denver

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DENVER — It’s not the same influx of people, politicians and celebrities that flocked here four years ago for the Democratic National Convention, but Wednesday night’s presidential debate at the University of Denver has the nation’s attention, and many of the country’s most influential political operatives and members of the national media flooding the Mile High City once again.

Many of the visitors are arriving Sunday, as news networks set up shop and begin looking to produce stories previewing the debate; crews from Fox News Channel and CNN are taping segments in Colorado Sunday and the campaign’s top staffers are also arriving early.

The Romney campaign will be setting up camp in Denver for several days, with Mitt Romney holding a rally at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Lowry Monday night and his wife, Ann Romney, holding another rally Tuesday afternoon at Hudson Gardens in Littleton.

And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will rally supporters at the National Western Stock Show complex Wednesday morning at 10 a.m., FOX31 Denver was first to report Sunday afternoon.

The debate itself, set for 7 p.m. Wednesday night, is the first of three face-offs, but widely considered to be the most important, and one of Romney’s last, best chances to change the trajectory of the race.

Last week, both campaigns sought to lower expectations, issuing memos and official statements about how their opponent was the more accomplished debater.

“We know Romney is , in his own words, a champion debater. So we are looking forward to that debate,” Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told FOX31 Denver Wednesday. “But we are realistic. Challengers usually win the first debate.”

Political analyst Eric Sondermann told FOX31 Denver that the media and most voters see through the pre-debate jockeying.

“Everyone wants to get judged on a curve instead of getting judged on a one-to-one relationship and they want to get judged on a curve, and a favorable curve to their candidate,” Sondermann said.

So who’s really got the bigger challenge?

“The challenger benefits just from showing up, standing on that stage next to the president of the United States, gaining that stature,” Sondermann said. “I think the expectations are somewhat higher for President Obama, just because he’s been president for almost four years and he is widely viewed as a fantastic communicator, although he’s a better speech-maker than he is a debater.”

But, while Obama faces higher expectations, the stakes may be higher for Romney, Sondermann said.

“The clock is running out, he’s behind in most polls in most key states, he has zero margin for error,” said Sondermann, who noted that debates aren’t won on points but with one memorable punch.

“Romney needs one or two devastating one-liners that are directed at Obama,” Sondermann told FOX31 Denver.

“His real problem is a connection problem. He just hasn’t passed that test of connecting with a critical mass of voters in this country. He’s gotta make that kind of connection. Tone means probably as much as mood and substance.”

WATCH FOX 31 DENVER NEWS AT NINE SUNDAY NIGHT FOR A PREVIEW OF WEDNESDAY’S DEBATE