Can TV debate lift Mitt Romney out of slump?

With early voting under way, the candidates have only a few more chances to impress

The pressure will be on Mitt Romney this week to ensure that the first of his televised debates with President Barack Obama becomes the moment his campaign pulls up from a protracted swoon that some in the Republican Party have started to blame on media bias and skewed polling techniques.

Paul Ryan, his running mate, said yesterday: "I think most people in the mainstream media are left of centre and, therefore, they want a very left-of-centre president versus a conservative president like Mitt Romney. As a conservative, I've long believed and long felt that there is inherent media bias. And I think anybody with objectivity would believe that that's the case."

After the long season of primaries and caucuses that finally gave the Republican nomination to Mr Romney, the campaign for the US president is now in top gear, not least because voters in some swing states are already beginning to make their choices. Early voting began in Iowa last week and will get under way in Ohio tomorrow. It is likely that a record 35 per cent of voters will have ticked their ballot papers ahead of election day this year.

Meanwhile, the debates give candidates their last mass-audience opportunity to make their cases to the country. There will be three between now and 6 November, with the first to be held at Denver University on Wednesday night. Next week Mr Ryan will face off against the Vice-President, Joe Biden, in Kentucky.

Some senior Republicans have sought to lower expectations for Mr Romney, but not so the Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. "The whole race is going to turn upside-down come Thursday morning," he said, adding that the debate would highlight the differences between the candidates, "the first time a majority of the people who are going to vote in this race will have an opportunity to make that direct comparison".

But Mr Christie also dismissed those in the party who suggest that Mr Romney's recent slippage in the polls, particularly in some battleground states, may have been exaggerated because poll-takers disproportionately interviewed Democrats. "You look at every different poll and look at its methodology and you can say whether it's a good or bad poll. But do I think there's a concerted effort to skew the polls against Governor Romney? No."

For his part, Mr Ryan, appearing on Fox News, admitted that the past couple of weeks had seen "some missteps" and that his ticket had also been hurt by the recent video secretly taped at a donors' dinner at which Mr Romney seemingly wrote off 47 per cent of the country as "victims" who didn't pay federal income tax. "It was an inarticulate way to describe what we're trying to do to create prosperity and upward mobility, and reduce dependency by getting people off welfare back to work," he conceded. "So, yeah, those – we've had some missteps, but at the end of the day, the choice is really clear and we're giving people a very clear choice." But everything was still to play for, he said. "You know, in these kinds of races, people really focus near the end, and that's happening now."

Newt Gingrich, who competed with Mr Romney for the Republican nomination, argued that his main task tomorrow would be to set himself apart from Mr Obama more clearly. "I think Mitt Romney has to move to clarity in drawing the contrast between the two," Mr Gingrich said. "There has to be a contrast between a Romney recovery and Obama stagnation."

Snapshot gives Obama the lead

Early voting is one thing, but Barack Obama probably wouldn't mind if election day was tomorrow and not five weeks away. Analysis by the Associated Press has him up at least 271 Electoral College votes, against the 270 he needs to return to the White House. In a snapshot of where the race sits now, AP sees Mr Obama taking at least 21 states. Mr Romney would win 23 states but only 206 Electoral College votes.

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