Rehearsal for those debates consumed the early part of the day for the former Massachusetts governor, who huddled with senior advisers in Los Angeles ahead of an evening campaign stop at a Denver-area high school. Romney has consistently taken time from his campaign schedule in recent weeks to focus on debate preparation whether studying up on policy issues or roleplaying with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who has been tapped to play Obama in Romney's debate dry runs.
While both sides are downplaying expectations, Romney's campaign sees the debates the first one in particular as a huge opportunity to get his campaign and its message back on track after a troublesome week. A secretly recorded video released Monday showed Romney writing off his prospects for winning over the almost half of Americans who he said pay no taxes, are dependent upon government and see themselves as victims dominated the week.
"That certainly was a political analysis at a fundraiser, but it's not a governing philosophy," Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a prominent Romney supporter, said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "He absolutely has a vision for 100 percent of America. And that is really different from this president."
But even many conservatives were publicly sweating over the remarks, which seemed to play into Democrats' caricature of Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat. Also dogging Romney were reports of internal finger-pointing and questions about his foreign policy judgment.
The Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, conceded that it wasn't the best week for Romney's campaign, but said in retrospect it would be viewed as the moment when the race crystallized around a central theme. ''We were able to frame up the debate last week in the sense of what future do we want and do you want out there for your kids and grandkids?" Priebus said on ABC's "This Week."
The candidate himself had a similar takeaway. Addressing donors Saturday night in Democrat-friendly California, Romney sought to translate the scuffle over the video into a policy debate about the growth of government under Obama's leadership.
"This is a tough time. These are our brothers and sisters. These are not statistics. These are people," Romney declared. "The president's policies these big-government, big-tax monolithic policies are not working."
Hoping to discharge another long-problematic issue during an already lost week, Romney on Friday released his 2011 tax returns showing income of $13.7 million, largely from investments. Citing Romney's refusal to release more than two years of returns, Obama aides argued that wasn't enough, seeking to parlay the issue into a broader condemnation of Romney's reluctance to lay out the specifics about how his tax plan would affect average Americans.
"He's not been straight with the American people about his taxes," said Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs. "He's not been straight with the middle-class people, families, in this country about what is going to happen to their taxes."
In his own personal slap at his opponent, Romney on Sunday released a television ad citing a new book by Washington Post editor Bob Woodward that claims that during a 2009 conference call on stimulus negotiations, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., put a verbose Obama on mute. "If he cannot lead his own party, how can he lead America?" the ad says.
Pelosi has flatly denied the incident ever occurred.
"Clearly, this ad is an act of desperation," she said in a statement released Sunday.
While national polls remain tight, polls in several of the most closely watched states, including Colorado, suggest that Obama has opened narrow leads. Obama won Colorado by 9 points four years ago, but the state went to a Republican in the previous three presidential elections.
Amid mounting pressure to spend less time raising money and more time explaining his plans to voters, Romney was refocusing his schedule visit more frequently the most competitive states. Romney adviser Kevin Madden defended the fundraising focus as a necessity, but said that intensity would be matched by an aggressive schedule of public events starting Sunday.
From Denver, Romney was to begin a three-day bus tour in Ohio on Monday followed by a stop in Virginia states that Obama won in 2008 but that Republicans claimed four years earlier. Obama, meanwhile, was set to be in New York on Monday and Tuesday for a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, plus an appearance on ABC's "The View."
Lederman reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn in Milwaukee contributed to this report.