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Debate Night in America

Aired October 3, 2012 - 20:00   ET



MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Polls go all over the place, but one thing I do know is that this is a very tight race.

ANNOUNCER: Both candidates get plenty of advice, even from their wives. This hour, a CNN exclusive. New interviews with Ann Romney and Michelle Obama.

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: He's a very good debater, so I do tell him to have fun and relax, and just be himself.

ANN ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S WIFE: Mitt has to know. He has to feel what he has got to say, when he's got to say it.

ANNOUNCER: Now CNN's coverage of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, side by side, on big problems and tough choices. Will this night change an election that's just a month away?

M. ROMNEY: I need your help on November 6th.

B. OBAMA: If you still believe in me, I'm asking for your vote.

ANNOUNCER: The nation is watching, voters want answers and America's future is up for debate.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: This is the University of Denver, the backdrop for the most important night in the presidential race so far. President Obama and Governor Romney, they will appear together in this hall, very soon, and go head to head on the issues for the first time.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world to debate night in America.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

Every word the candidates say tonight and any mistake they may make could affect the outcome of this election. In just a moment, their wives speak out about the stress, the enormous stress of these debates.

Stand by for a CNN exclusive, brand new interviews with both Michelle Obama and Ann Romney. We have the full force of our political team devoted to bringing you comprehensive debate coverage. Let's bring in our colleague once again, Anderson Cooper -- Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Wolf, I want to show our viewers right now who may just be joining us what they're going to see during the actually debate. We're going to clock the candidates to see how much time they discuss particular issues and how much talk time they get overall.

Our focus group of undecided Colorado voters is going to react to what the candidates are saying in real time. Their responses will look like this on your screen. You see those squiggly lines there with lines going up and down.

Also right now let's bring in John King at the magic wall -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, this first debate, nationally televised, globally televised. Let's be honest, the candidates focusing on these gold states. They are the tossup swing states. One of them, the state where the debate is held tonight. Colorado. And as you go back in time to take a look, Colorado, one of the classic swing states in American politics. The president carried it four years. George W. Bush carried it twice before that. Bill Clinton carried it in '92. Then lost it in '96.

So as they speak to the nation tonight, they will also be competing for this potentially decisive state in this election. The president won it last time by winning big in the Denver suburbs. Governor Romney has to pitch his economic pitch tonight, not only to the state's evangelicals but to try to win more support amongst suburban women -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John, thank you.

Let's go to the debate hall once again. Our chief political correspondent Candy Crowley. The first woman, by the way, tapped to moderate a presidential debate in 20 years, is watching very closely what's going on.

We're getting closer and closer. Candy, set the scene.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is getting packed in here, Wolf. And I have to tell you, it's freezing. And that's one of the things these candidates decide ahead of time, believe it or not, is how cold is it going to be in this theater, and I can tell you, they both -- both must have wanted it pretty cold.

But what we have here at least in the front rows on the one side, the Romney campaign, supporters, chief among them, Mrs. Romney. On the other side, Obama supporters and campaign, chief among them, of course, First Lady Michelle Obama.

There are a lot of other folks watching everything these men do. Not just this evening when they begin to talk. But what they've been doing leading into this.

I want to bring in our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin.

You know, Jessica, you always wonder in those final moments before they take the stage, what are they doing? What do you know about the president's activities?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Candy, the president is right now headed over here to this debate site, and I can tell you that he had an easier day of debate prep today than he has for the last few days. He began today with an exercise, waking up and doing some exercise, and then having some lighter prep with his advisers before he got on a plane, flew here to walk through the debate hall.

He went to his hotel, did some prep in his hotel room, and then he took some downtime and finally saw the first lady. It is their 20th wedding anniversary tonight. So they finally met up here for some brief time together and then they relaxed, had some downtime for a little bit and as I say he is now headed over here finally to get ready for the big night.

And now I'll send it over to my colleague, Jim Acosta, who has a little more detail on what Mitt Romney has been up to in these final hours -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jessica. We can report that Mitt Romney has arrived here at the debate hall with his wife, Ann Romney. They just wrapped up dinner a few moments ago and started heading this way. We can also report that the Romney campaign tweeted out a picture of Mitt and Ann Romney holding hands in the motorcade.

The Romney campaign not missing a beat in terms of getting out an image of one of the campaign's best assets, and that is Mrs. Romney.

One other thing that we can also report, I talked to a Romney campaign source just a few moments ago about that debate prep. They say it was pretty light today, that they were really just enjoying some downtime with Romney's grandkids, getting ready before the big night coming up in just -- just an hour from now -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Jim.

You know, before I toss it back to you, Anderson, I'm reminded of a quick conversation I had with George Bush when he first ran for president in the year 2000. He had a reputation of being a really mean guy. And I asked him about it, and he said I got that reputation when I was defending my dad during his re-election campaign. It's so much easier to run than to watch someone you love run.

So I think the pressure tonight certainly on these two men who want to be president, but there might just be more pressure on First Lady Michelle Obama and, of course, Ann Romney as they watch their husbands tonight -- Anderson. COOPER: That's really interesting. And we're hearing from both women tonight. Our CNN exclusive, brand new interviews with First Lady Michelle Obama and with Ann Romney. Both of them opening up about debate preparations and the pressure on their husbands.

First, our interview with Ann Romney. Her family calls her the Mitt Stabilizer. And Gloria Borger asked her if that's the role she's playing leading up to tonight's debate.


A. ROMNEY: Absolutely. I feel like that's my role for Mitt especially when he's going through such a difficult time. I'm there for him. We're there for each other emotionally all the time. In the last 20 debates that we did in the primary, I felt that was my most important role.


A. ROMNEY: You know, it's a cute thing that he does. Almost after every answer, he finds me in the audience. As soon as he gets on stage, the first thing he does is he takes off his watch and puts it on the podium.


But then he writes "dad" on a piece of paper. And that's amazing, because he loves his dad, respects his dad, doesn't want to do anything that would not make his father proud. And just a reminder that, yes, I'm here, but, dad, I love and respect who you are, what you've taught me, what kind of a person you are, and I'm going to honor that.

And so I love the fact that Mitt does that. So he writes that, and then he looks in the audience and finds me, he has to find where I am. He just -- he needs just that connection, and almost after every answer that he gives, he'll find me in the audience to see, was that good? Was that OK?

BORGER: So what do you do?

A. ROMNEY: Good, good.

BORGER: What if you don't like what he did?

A. ROMNEY: Oh, oh. No, I don't --


Oh. I don't do any of that.


BORGER: So he's on stage --

A. ROMNEY: Yes, he's on stage. There's an emotional connection that's happening between the two of us during the debate itself.

BORGER: So how does he prepare for what is essentially the most important job interview of his life? This debate?

A. ROMNEY: His whole life has been a preparation for him being where he is right now. His whole life has been an experience of working in very troubled situations, turning around troubled situations. His whole life has been in the private economy. He understands job creation. Understands the difficulties of an economic decline. He understands what's missing in an economic recovery.

So for those kinds of things, you cannot teach him. It is in his bones. But for the -- current events, everything else like that, I know he's got briefing books, I know he's studying. The guy does his homework. He really does do his homework. And he's very thorough. He has to understand a situation.

And I -- I see sometimes, and I haven't watched a lot of this debate prep, but in previous debate preps, where he is the devil's advocate, even for his staff that's giving him information, he's like prove this to me, or I need to understand these numbers.

He makes everyone around him be as on their toes and as sharp and as prepared as anything.

BORGER: Doesn't he have to take on the president aggressively in this debate?

A. ROMNEY: You know what? I am not going to be the one that's going to weigh in with Mitt on that at all. Mitt has to know. He has to feel what he's got to say, when he's got to say it. He's got to listen to his own instincts, and that's what I will tell him, is like trust your own gut.

BORGER: So some Republicans are saying this is make or break for Mitt Romney. That's right, isn't it?

A. ROMNEY: I don't think -- you know, every -- you know, everything is make or break for us for the last year and a half.


We're getting kind of used to this. You know at every -- at every primary, this is make or break for Mitt. And the next one, this is make or break for Mitt. We're getting used to the fact that the media puts a very high bar for us. What I want the American people to understand is that this is a man who has been prepared his entire life to be able to bring this country to an economic recovery.

BORGER: Is there one thing he needs to do to break through?

A. ROMNEY: You know, I would love it personally just for people to tune in and just watch. Let's just see him. Let's just see who he is. Let's just see how he thinks and what he feels. For me, that's the important thing that must come through. BORGER: His problem during this campaign if you look at the polls, is that a significant majority of people do not believe he understands their problems. And when he talked about the 47 percent that only seemed to compound that problem. How can he change that perception at this debate?

A. ROMNEY: I think the first and most important thing is to recognize that that's not an accurate perception, that he's obviously running for 100 percent of the Americans, that there are many people that need Mitt's help right now, and I think, you know, for folks to understand that this is a guy that does care, that does understand, that's why we're running.

In my rally just out there, I told a few personal stories about Mitt and about how he's not a person that talks, he's a person that goes and does. That's the function that I'd like people to understand about Mitt.

BORGER: How can you show that to voters?

A. ROMNEY: Well, we're going to try. We keep trying. And you know it's difficult especially when the opposition wants to put you in a narrative that, you know, is not flattering. And so it's a battle to be able to do that. That's why I appreciate being able to have the opportunity to talk about the character of the man. You know, he's just -- he's just such a good, decent human being.

BORGER: You recently responded to campaign critics. You said, "Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring." You seem really upset by that.

A. ROMNEY: Well, you know, there's always days where you just go, you know, everyone is a critic, and you just go, if you really understood what you were up against when you do run for president, it's a very difficult thing, and as you know, Gloria, I said last time I would never do this again, and that's part of the reason. I mean it's really hard for a family member, a person that loves this person that you see going through these difficulties and just know how tough it is on that person that you love.

And so for me, it's -- it comes out of a compassion for Mitt and a compassion and a passion for how important this election is. And how important that people really figure out what they should be thinking about when they go in that voting booth. They should be thinking about, have the past four years been good? Do you expect the economy to get better under this president? Or do you think it's just going to go on as it has been, just dribbling along?

It doesn't need to be that way. I want people to think if they vote for Mitt, they know they're going to get better economic solutions, they're going to get leadership, they're going to get someone that cares and they're going to get this country moving again.


COOPER: Ann Romney talking to our Gloria Borger. Gloria is in our political analyst table tonight, along with David Gergen, who's worked in the White House with presidents from both parties, Republican and Democrat.

It is just fascinating to hear. David, you're particularly struck by what she said about Mitt Romney's father.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. The fact that he writes "dad" on a card in front of him at every debate, I mean it's -- it's one more example we've had now a series of presidents going all the way back to John Kennedy whose father has been so important to propelling him to run for this office.

And you know more recently as George Bush. We've got -- we've got George W. Bush. We've got Al Gore. Now we've got Mitt Romney. You know, living out their father's dream in some ways. That's just remarkable.

BORGER: But with Mitt Romney, I think what's interesting is that it's so much fulfilling his father dream. It's trying to be like his father. Because he really does idolize his father. And in many ways, and he wants --

GERGEN: But his father never got to the presidency.

BORGER: His father never got to the presidency.

GERGEN: And he's living out that dream.

BORGER: And in many ways he is like his father, with the energy, but in many ways he's not like his father.

COOPER: Well --

BORGER: He's not as natural (INAUDIBLE). And he's not a backslapping guy. His father was a very different kind of politician.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: But, Gloria, he's a terribly decent man, and he has that card in front of him that says "dad" because he doesn't want to do anything that would demean the family name.

BORGER: Exactly.

CASTELLANOS: But you don't want to go into a debate with a card in front of you that says you're thinking about what not to do. You're in the arena.


BORGER: Well, then you'd be thinking about --

CASTELLANOS: You want -- you want to be -- you want t be --

BORGER: -- what his father won't do.

CASTELLANOS: You're fighting for your life. And not only your life, you're fighting for your country's life.

COOPER: But that's one of the interesting things that came out of the documentary that you did -- before the convention, about the lesson that he took away from his father.

BORGER: Right.

COOPER: Who said, after making one statement about Vietnam and the generals.

BORGER: Vietnam. Right.

COOPER: Really his campaign stumbled.

BORGER: Right. He --

COOPER: And then -- Mitt Romney took away a lesson from that about being cautious.


BORGER: He said -- and I think he may have over-learned the lesson. I mean his father said he been -- he had been brainwashed on Vietnam and pretty soon his presidential campaign had disappeared in '68. So I think the lesson Mitt Romney learned from that is that a moment of candor --

COOPER: Can hurt you.

BORGER: Can kill you, can hurt you.

COOPER: And you think he over-learned that lesson?

BORGER: And he may have over-learned it.

CASTELLANOS: I think -- I think Gloria is dead right. I think what that card says is caution. And Mitt Romney is a very cautious man. He made money at Bain Capital not by risking a lot in picking winners, but by not picking losers.

GERGEN: But, Alex, I think there's also something very sweet about it.


GERGEN: You know, I think he's trying to live up --


GERGEN: -- to what he thought his father wanted him to be. I don't see it as --


GERGEN: Look, watch out what you're doing every step.


CARLY FIORINA, 2008 MCCAIN CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: Well, I think we're over-analyzing Mitt Romney, frankly.

CASTELLANOS: But I think that's not what we're hearing in the arena.

GERGEN: Well, that's --

FIORINA: Well, to me, first of all, I do think we're overanalyzing Mitt Romney. I think Mitt Romney has demonstrated that he's his own man. What I take from it based on a comment he actually made during the convention is that he thought of his father as always authentic and always genuine, and always OK with who he was, win, lose, or draw.

And I think if Mitt Romney projects that, I am authentic, I am genuine, I am doing this for the right reasons, and I will live with the will of the American people, I think that's very persuasive.

COOPER: Is that something he can actually project? Or is the idea that you have to project authenticity inauthentic in it of itself?

FIORINA: No. Look, I think -- President Obama is gifted at projecting many emotions through the words he uses. What he has not been gifted at is delivering results. And what Mitt Romney has to do is present a contrast and say, you know what, words are great, but now let's talk about results.

And I want to go back if I may for a minute to Dan's comments about four years ago. Let's be accurate. Four years ago, President George W. Bush was in the office. Four years ago, we were in the second quarter of a recession. We now know. TARP stabilized the financial markets. George W. Bush took a lot of heat from conservatives from that. But by the time President Barack Obama was inaugurated, the recession, we now know from the data was over. In other words, the worst was over before Obama was in office. And the problem is --


COOPER: We can litigate this over and over again.

FIORINA: No, no, but the problem is --

COOPER: So we're going to have to now go to (INAUDIBLE) to get into this discussion. We're all talking about the debate tonight.

FIORINA: The facts are important because the problem for Obama is --

COOPER: Right.

FIORINA: -- that things haven't gotten appreciably better since he was president. That's the problem. We're growing at 1.3 percent. COOPER: This notion -- this notion --

FIORINA: That's not much better.

COOPER: It's interesting, James Carville, because, I mean, Mitt Romney tried to use the "are you better off four years -- than you were four years ago during the convention. Did it work?


JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I got -- look, I got to -- she's got to argue with the National Bureau of Economic Researchers that says the recession ended in June of '09. We're losing 800,000 jobs in January of '09. I'm not going to get into that discussion. But what I'm going to say is this.

There are a lot of people -- excuse me, there are a lot of people who run for president that don't have great relationships with their fathers. Obviously President Obama didn't. President Clinton was raised by a single mother. I don't think President Reagan had a much more relationship with his father. I mean -- and it's good. I think as the father of two children, I think that's good and I think Mitt Romney's father was a very admirable man, but I don't know if we can read too much into it.

COOPER: Too much into it.


COOPER: We've got to take a break. We've got to get a break in. It's going to be a fascinating night. And also not just during the debate, it's important to stick around after the debate as James Carville is pointing out earlier. There's going to a lot of fact- checking to do. A lot of "Keeping Them Honest." We're going to be doing that as soon as the debate ends.

Then we're going to hear exclusively from First Lady Michelle Obama. And she doesn't see eye to eye with Ann Romney about the rigors of campaigning, details on that ahead.


BLITZER: The debate hall of the University of Denver. It's debate night in America, anticipation building at the site of tonight's face-off. Building also, by the way, here at the CNN Election Center.

We're going to hear shortly from the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Stand by for that.

We're also not that far away from tonight's debate. Take a look at the clock. You see what's going on. When President Obama and Governor Romney appear on stage together, at the University of Denver, Jim Lehrer of PBS will be the moderator for what could be, potentially at least, one of the most in depth and maybe even lively debates in memory. They'll zero in on domestic policy with a new format that allows for more interaction between the two candidates and more time to discuss a single topic.

Let's go back to the debate hall. Our chief political correspondent Candy Crowley is watching what's going on.

Candy, you're going to be the moderator in that next presidential debate. So I think you're going to be watching this about as closely as anyone.

CROWLEY: Absolutely, Wolf. You know, this is, in fact, an arena that they use here at the university of -- let me explain this picture, this is President Obama headed toward this debate site. We know that Mitt Romney is already here, and I -- obviously this is quite the happening, so you see a lot of folks out on the street. In fact, when we came in, people were hanging signs from the dorm rooms.

This is an arena. I'm told it's used for ice hockey and sometimes basketball. Tonight, it's just pure politics. Not a lot of big names or familiar faces, but I think nonpolitical junkies would recognize here tonight. But we've seen Mike McCurry and Frank Fahrenkopf. Mike McCurry, of course, from the Clinton administration, a spokesman. Frank Fahrenkopf, actually was head of the Republican Party during the heydays of the Reagan and George Bush, the father, years, both of them on the debate commission obviously with a lot invested here.

There you see Alan Simpson as well. So lots of -- lots of debate junkies, lots of real politicos here tonight and of course, all of those people watching tonight at home on the -- in the comfort of their living room couch.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Tens and tens of millions of people will be watching in the United States. And many millions more watching around the world.

Candy, thanks very much.

There are specific rules for tonight's debate. But some even bigger rules come into play for the presidential election. Let's go back to John King. He's over at the magic wall with a closer look at election rules that may be, may be could be broken. What's going on here?

KING: Now, Wolf, you know this growing up as a kid in Buffalo. I grew up in Dorchester. Rules? Well, some rules are made to be broken. That's true in politics as well.

Let's take it close to what we're talking about. Here's one we look at. We come out here to this here. Now you take a look -- sorry, we got the wrong one up. I can fix that, come back. We'll make this work. What's the close down, reset for me. I'll get you to the -- we have to reset this. We'll probably be back in just a second. Let me toss it back to you for the moment. Here we go. We got it work right now. Here's the first rule right here. The October rule. The race can change directions in October. Right? Our big first debate, it's a very competitive race. Can Governor Romney win the debate tonight and change the race? Well, yes, he can. However, however, it doesn't always happen. Most often about 80 percent of the time, the candidate who leads at this point in the race -- that'll be President Obama. Yes, it's a narrow lead, but if you go back in history even candidates with a very narrow lead at this point, 8 out of 10 elections, if you go back, they tend to win.

So this is one rule that might be broken. It might be more of a myth than a rule. That the race can change.

Rule number two, well, if the president does win, he will break rule number two. Because the unemployment rate, since FDR. no president, no president has won re-election with an unemployment rate above 7.2 percent, and it is still above 8 percent right now.

So the president is going to have to break one of those rules as we go forward. Here is one my favorites. We used to say Missouri is the show-me state, even in presidential politics because since 1956, Missouri always picked the winner. That's the only state you had to watch. Right? Watch Missouri, and you know who won the election. Well, let me shift walls here. We'll go over -- we've got two magic walls tonight. Two is better than one.

Because if go and back and look at the map from 1988, look at this. Well, show me state went for John McCain, Barack Obama won the presidency so this rule has been broken. We can forget about that.

Rule number four, this is a good one. This is one to watch. No Republican has won the presidency since the days of Abraham Lincoln without winning Ohio.

Well, let's go back over to this map, and we know this to be true. Barack Obama carried Ohio last time. He won the presidency.

Let me take this off and go back in time. George W. Bush in 2004 and in 2000 won Ohio. So he must win Ohio, Mitt Romney, to win the presidency. And you might say, Wolf, that Ohio could be -- forgive me, Missouri, the new show-me state. Since 1964 Ohio voted for Nixon in '60. But since '64, the winner of Ohio wins the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Critically important, Ohio, Ohio, Ohio.

The first presidential debate getting ready to begin very soon. We're about to hear from Michelle Obama, the first lady of the United States. She will reveal the advice she's giving her husband tonight.


BLITZER: Look at these front-row seats. This is the area where the first lady, Michelle Obama, will be sitting during tonight's debate. The president should be able to see her, by the way, in his line of sight, while he's at the podium, very interesting. This is a huge night for President Barack Obama and for the first lady, Michelle Obama not just because of the presidential debate that begins very soon, the first lady talks about that in an exclusive interview with CNN.

Mrs. Obama and her brother, Craig Robinson, sat down with our Jessica Yellin.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: How do you do? Nice to see you.


(voice-over): We spoke to Michelle Obama and her brother Craig, shortly before the debate, which happens to fall on an important day for the first couple.

(on camera): I wonder in your wildest dream, you ever imagined that you would be spending your 20th wedding anniversary on a double date with the Romneys.

MICHELLE OBAMA: No, I can't say this would have been the plan 20 years ago. And, in fact, I told Barack, you know, attending a presidential debate on my 20th anniversary is probably the worst way for me to spend.

I -- I get so nervous at these debates, and, you know, I'm like one of those parents watching their kid on the balance beam. You're just standing there, just trying not to, you know, have any expression at all.

So, no, I -- I would not have chosen this, but I'm excited about it, and I know he's going to do a great job.

YELLIN (voice-over): Her brother, Craig, was a groomsman in the wedding.

(on camera): Tell me about the groom. Was he nervous?

CRAIG ROBINSON, MICHELLE OBAMA'S BROTHER: No, I do remember that. He wasn't nervous. We were back in the back --

MICHELLE OBAMA: He had a bad cold.

ROBINSON: Yes, but we were joking around because he had a cold. And I remember thinking -- we were teasing him about, OK, whatever you do, don't sneeze while you are saying your vows, I remember we had a big laugh about that.

MICHELLE OBAMA: He said all the congestion, he was really congested, when he got to the altar, it all cleared up, and for that moment we were at the altar, he said his nose was completely clear.

ROBINSON: My sister has that affect on people. YELLIN: Were you nervous?

MICHELLE OBAMA: No, I wasn't. You know, Barack and I, we had dated for a couple of years. I knew him and I trusted him. It was the most natural next step in the world, and our families knew each other.

I had spent Christmases in Hawaii meeting his family. So there wasn't -- you know, it was -- it was just sort of, OK, we're going to do this, get it done, and we'll go on our honeymoon. I was really excited about the honeymoon actually.

YELLIN: Let me ask you about the debate a little bit.


YELLIN: I've read, before a speech, you to tell him have fun. A debate is a little different, more like a competition, a game of one- on-one. What's your motivational advice to him?

MICHELLE OBAMA: He doesn't need much advice. I mean, he has been doing this quite some time. He knows the job, doing it quite some time. He's a very good debater. So I do tell him to have fun, relax, be himself. The truth is, if he's the Barack Obama the country has come to know and trust. He's going to do a great job.

YELLIN: Craig, you coach players for a living. You've played ball with the president. What should his opponent watch out for?

ROBINSON: At the debate?


ROBINSON: Make him go right.

YELLIN: What's his strength? I mean, this is a person who has won a lot in his life.

ROBINSON: No, you're absolutely right. What I take from the president when I watch him debate is he's great at listening to what everyone is saying and quickly preparing a retort.

I -- I enjoy watching that. And his retorts are always heartfelt, extremely thoughtful and quick, and that's what I enjoy watching when I watch the president debate.

YELLIN: Some of his aides say one of his challenges to keep the answers short and I know that you -- have said that you critique his speeches afterward.

MICHELLE OBAMA: No, I don't afterwards actually. I give him, you know, I give him my positive reinforcement. So --

YELLIN: Only positive?

MICHELLE OBAMA: Generally, yes because he's a great speaker. I mean, he's good at this.

YELLIN: So do you think he has any challenges going in?

MICHELLE OBAMA: You know, I haven't really -- I would have to think about that afterwards, but going into it, I think he's going to do his best.

YELLIN (voice-over): She's gotten top reviews for her performance, especially at the Democratic convention. And she rallies crowds in battleground states often enough to have her own stump speech.

MICHELLE OBAMA: That's how Barack and I and so many of you were raised. Those are the values we were taught. We learned how hard you work matters more than how much you make we learned that the truth matters, you don't take short cuts or game the system or play by your own set of rules.

YELLIN (on camera): Do you believe Governor Romney has a different set of values?

MICHELLE OBAMA: You know, I don't even begin to talk about our opponent's values. What I can tell you about my husband, he's been working to ensure that every American can have a real shot at the American dream.

That people can have a job that pays a real wage, that people don't lose their homes because someone gets sick. You know, you can send your kids to college maybe or maybe your kids can get a good job that pays good benefits.

That folks can retire with a little dignity and security. I know that's the vision that my husband has for this country, you know, it's a vision we grew up with. My dad was that guy we were fighting for.

My dad didn't have a college degree. But what he was able to do with his life, because he a solid job, he put two of us through Princeton. Barack wants to make sure everyone in this country, no matter who you are, where you are from, what you look like, or as I say, who love, has the opportunity to gain some access to that American dream.

YELLIN: Ann Romney recently said about the critics of her husband, to the critics of her husband, her husband's critics, that running for president is hard. Do you sympathize with that?

MICHELLE OBAMA: You know, the campaign experience is unique for everyone. You know, everyone comes to this and experiences it differently. For me, I really enjoyed campaigning. I think Barack and I, we both get energy from it.

Because, you know, when you love in Washington, sometimes you get isolated from the rest of the country, and this is a time when we get out and we can remember just how decent people are. I come across people. I don't care what -- what political party they come from. They are hopeful, happy to see you, willing to listen. And it's good to be reminded of that when you get out on the campaign trail, so I get -- I get energy from it, and I always have, and I have always said that.

That I -- it's, you know, I have never thought a few years ago I would enjoy it this much, I really do and when I can hang out with my brother. He's a pretty good asset to out there.


BLITZER: He certainly is. Let's go to Jessica. She is joining us live from Denver right now. Excellent interview, Jessica. Thanks so much for doing it. I was intrigued. She didn't want to criticize her husband, the president of the United States, at all. What do you make of that?

YELLIN: The first lady, I noticed that too, Wolf. It was very noticeable. She is very on message and it is part of the Obama campaign's do no harm strategy at this point.

I don't know any wives who have zero criticism of their husbands, but right now, it's clear that the first lady doesn't want to create any hiccups in her husband's campaign.

So even when I pressed her, what is his littlest weakness or challenge going into the debate, she wouldn't go there so she only has positive feedback for her husband. She says now maybe after the election is over, she might have some little bit of critique she can offer.

BLITZER: He doesn't hesitate to offer she happens to be his number one critic, but that's privately behind the scenes. I'm sure they have some good discussions on that note.

I should say Jessica thanks so much. Anderson, by the way, today is the 20th anniversary, you heard Jessica report that, of the first family, first couple tonight. Congratulations to both of them. What a way to celebrate their 20th.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, I want to bring in our political analysts and our CNN contributors as well. Do you think you're going to be hearing from Mitt Romney, the idea of are you better off than you were four years ago?

An idea they floated at the convention. It took some time for the Obama campaign to come up, and then they fired back heavily at the Democratic convention.

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: If there is one question that Obama is ready to answer, that's it. If there is one question that Romney knows Obama is ready to answer, that's it. Rob Portman has answered that question in spades.

I suspect that Obama is going to do, let me tell you what President Clinton said, Governor Romney. He made the point, boom, boom, boom, boom. And it will be the kind of end of that deal and we'll move on to the next question. That is one that I am confident that they have practiced like ten times.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: And let's talk about Joe Biden, right? He can talk about what Joe Biden said, which was the middle class have been buried for the last four years.

CARVILLE: Again, just on the specific question, were you period better off than four years ago, they have practiced that so many times, I know they are ready for that one.


CARVILLE: That's a different question, not the one I was asked.

BORGER: I agree.

GERGEN: It is very clear that they are going to spend a lot of time and too much time re-litigating the past and each one will come with a set of statistics, but so much more important for someone to get up on the high road.

And take what has been -- at a time a country faces serious questions, I'm in a camp of saying this is a serious election with a small bore campaign.

Campaign is not talking about the big issues. The person who can get there tonight and talk in a compelling way about the future is the person who could well win this debate.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Can I share experience in debates like this? There is a danger for both candidates. These men have been in public life for a while. They've been campaigning forever, and there is a tendency if you are the president of the United States, you want to defend your record. I did too do a good job.

If you're Mitt Romney, you think a lot has been taken out of context. You want to explain that, and that is a trap that can sometimes prevent candidates from doing what I think David just said. What they need to do tonight. Last four years?

Look, there is enough blame to go around, but I've got something in this toolbox right here that will make it better. You may not even like me personally, but I can fix what's broken with this.

COOPER: This debate does focus on domestic policies, but we're hearing that Jim Lehrer may ask a question related to foreign policy, Libya, Syria. Do you think -- is that something Mitt Romney wants to have that discussion now? Do you think Mitt Romney feels there is some room there for him to make some --

CASTELLANOS: It's hard to say what the campaign is thinking, but if you haven't made your case on the economy, sufficiently well, when the economy is in this terrible of shape, I would think distracting from that is probably not a good strategy. Let's do too many things not well. I would stay focused on the economy tonight.

YELLIN: I do think Mitt Romney can, and if given the chance, will, successfully prosecute the case that what we're seeing is a lack of leadership domestically and in foreign policy as well.

We had big headlines, turkey shooting at Syria, Syria sending shells into Turkey. That's big news. I wouldn't be surprised if Jim Lehrer throws a foreign policy question in.

VAN JONES, FORMER OBAMA SPECIAL ADVISER: If I'm in Obama, I would say throw me in the briar patch. That's a strong point for him. I think, unfortunately, the door is now open in a way on foreign policy that it wasn't before, because of the U.N. ambassador being killed. I think that Obama would love to go there. I think he's one of the best prepared people.

BORGER: I think the leadership question tonight, if it's -- on domestic policy, is going to be the deficit issue, the fiscal management of the country, and in talking to Romney advisers, that's sort of the key thing they are going to point out in terms of leadership, talk about commander in chief at the next debate. But this debate is about fiscal management and who is going to be better for me in the next four years.

COOPER: Very quickly, David.

GERGEN: First 45 minutes of this, the most important 45 minutes of the campaign, all about the economy. I've known Jim Lehrer for a long time. He won't be constricted by the -- he could well go into Libya and what's been happening in the second part of the debate.

COOPER: Not just the first 45 minutes are important, after the debate, our job, the fact checking, reality checking, Wolf, a little bit on that.

BLITZER: We certainly do, Anderson. We put together a very impressive reality check team to determine if the candidates are telling us the truth tonight. John Berman is one of the team's leaders. He is joining us now.

John, even before tonight's debate, you have been fact checking candidates' recent claims out there on the campaign trail, what are you seeing?

JOHN BERMAN, ANCHOR, CNN'S "EARLY START": You know, Wolf, we took a look at what candidates have been saying the last few days, to get a flavor of what things might look like in terms of the truth.

Tax cuts, who deserves them, who gets them? This week, President Obama claimed again that Mitt Romney is looking for new tax breaks worth trillions of dollars for those Americans with the most money.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: They think that somehow you can lower our deficits by spending another $5 trillion on new tax breaks for the wealthy. But no matter how many times they try to reboot the campaign when they try to explain it, they can't.


BERMAN: And $5 trillion, this claim is largely based on a study from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, they know that Mitt Romney proposes cutting all tax rates by 20 percent. This would initially add up to $5 trillion for top earners, that's a big cut.

But it doesn't take into account closing loopholes and eliminating deductions, which Romney has promised to do. This would reduce the tax cuts on the wealthy, but the problem is Romney hasn't been very specific about which deductions and how many?

So our verdict here is false on President Obama's original claim. Eliminating any tax cut would make it less than $5 trillion on the rich even if Mitt Romney has been pretty dodging about laying out which deductions and which loopholes. One more thing we want to look at here. Mitt Romney likes to talk about the middle class squeeze. He claims wages are down and all kinds of prices are up.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Do you realize over the last four years, every year you have seen the median income in America come down. Income is down some 4,300 a family. The middle class squeeze has been unbearable. Gasoline prices way up, food prices up, electricity prices up. Health insurance costs up.


BERMAN: The facts in this are easy to find. Yes, median income is down over the last four years, but it's only down $2,500 since President Obama took office and yes, prices for all those items are up, though, food and electricity barely.

So the verdict here is true, but misleading. Mitt Romney inflated the number he used by adding in a year from the Bush administration. Wolf, you can see what's going on here. Rarely do you get purely true and purely false. There is a lot of nuance here that we hope to lay out for you tonight.

BLITZER: And we're going to be checking those facts. During the course of the 90-minute debate, John, I know you have a great team working with you. Let's go back to the University of Denver, the debate hall and Candy Crowley is standing by -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Wolf. They are into the preliminaries here. We are hearing from various officials, right now, a university official and then we'll hear the first ladies introduced. They are now in the hall.

Quickly, I want to go to Senator Kelly Ayotte. She is one of the famous spinners called into duty. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being now or never Mitt Romney, how important is this for the challenger?

SENATOR KELLY AYOTTE (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: I think it's obviously an important night, but this doesn't make the whole election, Candy. We have obviously a couple of debates. You are moderating one of them. so I would say this is a six or seven.

It's important, but, you know, the American people are going to judge this presidency based on the record of where we are right now with the president's added $5.5 trillion to the debt.

And those are the measures that when people get in the ballot box, where am I today? Can I expect better in four more years? No.

CROWLEY: You know, Chris Christie told reporters we're all going to wake up on Thursday morning, thinking we really have a race going. Do you agree with that? Do you think it will turn things around?

And before you answer that, let me -- this is Janet Brown who runs the Commission on Debates introducing the first lady.

It's very nice. Actually, she was introducing Ann Romney who won a coin toss to be introduced first. You saw the first lady coming over to embrace Ann Romney before this.

So now we're looking forward to this debate coming up. Chris Christie said, listen, we think that tomorrow morning, Thursday morning, this will be a whole different race. Do you have that kind of hope for it?

AYOTTE: Well, Candy, when the president is asked the hard questions and has to really tell the American people why we are where we are and what is his plan for the future, I think Governor Romney is a strong debater.

It's important in the race, but again it comes down to people will ask themselves what is the president's plan to make sure the next four years aren't like the last? We haven't heard any plan yet.

CROWLEY: Kelly Ayotte, thank you very much for stopping by. We'll see you in the spin room.

AYOTTE: OK, it sounds good. Thanks.

CROWLEY: And speaking of the -- we want to check in quickly with Jim Acosta and Jessica Yellin. Jessica, you have a guest with you.

YELLIN: I do. Hi, Candy. I'm here with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who was also chairman of the Democratic National Convention. I want to ask you -- Mayor, thank you for being with us. You are a candid guy. What are President Obama's weak spots tonight?

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (D), LOS ANGELES: I think everybody has pointed them out. He has to be more succinct, not so professorial. He's going to be direct in his responses. I'm not one that really believes that faux pas here and there will do much to change people's positions about a candidate. But I think debates are important. That's why we're here.

YELLIN: Does he have to make a case to undecided voters that he is worth re-hiring?

VILLARAIGOSA: Absolutely and I think he'll make that case. He'll lay out we've had 30 straight months of growth in our economy. Manufacturing jobs are back, and he'll say what we're going to do going into the future.

YELLIN: But the point he has to make is he didn't understand what a hole we were in when he got into the job, does he understand what he has to do to get out of it?

VILLARAIGOSA: First of all, I don't think any anybody understood we would have an economy going into the free fall that it did. This was the worst economy since the depression. I think he will lay out that we made strides, we can do more. If you follow his path, that focus is on the economy from the middle out. We'll do a lot better in the next four years.

YELLIN: Mayor Villaraigosa, thanks for being with us. Candy, I'm going to throw it back to you.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Jessica. We want to go on the other side of the spin room, where we find CNN's Jim Acosta, who also has a guest. Hi, Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Candy. That's right. I'm joined by Romney Senior adviser, Kevin Madden. I wanted to ask you, Kevin, Mitt Romney has been preparing for this debate off and on over the last month, since the Republican convention. Is he ready?

KEVIN MADDEN, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Yes, I think he's very well prepared. If you look at Governor Romney's career, whether it's been as a governor, as head of the Olympics or a business, he's always prepared.

I think he sees this as an important opportunity to go out and really cut through a lot of clutter in the campaign, talk directly to the public about the issues. He's prepared to do that.

ACOSTA: One of the questions that has come up today as you know in this news cycle, is what Governor Romney said to a local news station, how he would pay to the tax cuts and talked about limiting deductions to $17,000. And you could put whatever deduction you wanted into that $17,000. Will we hear Governor Romney lay out more specifics?

MADDEN: Well, I expect differences on how the two candidates approach tax reform actually, the president's lack of actual tax reform and Governor Romney's plan to reform the tax code.

As we get into specifics, we'll see how he talks in specifics how he wants to lower rates. Spur economic growth, and how we'll broaden the base. We'll get into those issues and a whole lot of others. He'll prepare for specifics. That's what a lot of voters want to know right now. What the future of the American economy would look like under President Romney and he's prepared to do that.

ACOSTA: Thank you very much. Candy, we'll wait and see if we get specifics later on tonight during the debate. Back to you.

CROWLEY: Jim Acosta, thanks.

I'm now joined by Jen Psaki who is the press secretary for the Obama campaign. You know, Jen, I asked this of our Jessica Yellin earlier, and I want to ask you.

Your candidate, steeped in policy for almost four years ago now, he is a very eloquent speaker, understand these issues. What the heck are you worried about tonight?

JEN PSAKI, OBAMA CAMPAIGN TRAVELING PRESS SECRETARY: Look, all we're worried about is making sure the president speaks directly to the audience at home. His intended audience is not Mitt Romney, not even necessarily --

CROWLEY: So we can ignore him?

PSAKI: No, absolutely not. Of course, there is going to be a back and forth discussion. He wants to speak to those people who are sitting on their couches at home who haven't tuned in. That's his goal tonight.

CROWLEY: How many times will we hear the words middle class?

PSAKI: Well, quite a few I'm betting. That is the president's focus. He wants the people at home to know he's fighting for the middle class and that's what he will do with another four years.

CROWLEY: But we know at the same that Mitt Romney is going to want to and in fact the debate moderator will want to have them mix it up and are you like, nope, look at the camera, have him talk straight to the people at home.

PSAKI: Well, look, we don't think and the president doesn't think that attack lines and all of the --

CROWLEY: No, but discussion back and forth.

PSAKI: Sure, of course, there will be discussion back and forth, and the American people will see the choice they are facing in November. But the president is focused on the people sitting on couches at home, families who are watching, and that's who he's speaking directly to.

CROWLEY: If you, in fact had a one thing that you were most hopeful for tomorrow morning, what is it? That the race is over?

PSAKI: We know this race will be close until the bitter end, and we're running like we're five points behind in every swing state. We hope people wake up tomorrow and they say I know that guy is fighting for me. I want to give him a chance to go back for four years. I know he's done a lot, but there is more he can do. That's our goal coming out of this debate.

CROWLEY: Jen Psaki, thank you so much.

PSAKI: Good to see you.

CROWLEY: Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Candy, thanks very much. We were just 5 minutes away from the start of the debate, probably the most important night of this presidential race.

Let's bring back our political analysts and CNN contributors and also our reporters and correspondents. John King, you're joining us now at the table. As you wait this last 5 minutes, what are you going to be looking for particular in those first 45 minutes of this debate?

JOHN KING, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Governor Romney has to change the dynamic of the race on one single question. Which of those two men tonight should voters trust especially swing voters in battleground states.

Which man do voters trust the most to take direction of the economy? Right now they are tied. You can't convince people to change presidents if you are tied with him on the defining question facing the country. You have to beat him on that question and you probably have to beat him by several points.

COOPER: So this isn't about energizing the base tonight. It's about those undecided people.

KING: It's about both. He can't win if he just energizes the base. He has to convince his base that he is a conservative. He is with them. He will cut taxes. He will be a conservative Republican. He has to get all the pieces of the Republican coalition to vote for him, but guess what?

That's not enough with the way -- especially in battleground states. In Colorado tonight, that state will be decided if most Latinos turn out and most Evangelicals turn out. That state will be decided by suburban women.

They tend to be more moderate than Mitt Romney. Ohio is not much different. Virginia now with the demographic changes is not much different. What do all those people want?

Their legs are tired. It's been four, five, or six tough years economically and they want somebody to tell them, the next four years will be better. If he can beat the president on that question, he can change the race tonight.

COOPER: We're going to be hearing a lot about the middle class. If there is a drinking game, that is the phrase to look for to drink the most. Gloria was saying that Joe Biden's phrase will be used perhaps by Governor Romney. Van Jones, do you think that will be effective?

JONES: I would say this is about Vice President Biden. When he is himself he's more relatable and more empathetic when he is making a mistake talking about the middle class than Romney is on purpose. So I think we got to give him credit. The reason why he can make mistakes and still beloved, he's authentic. The most authentic person on the state has a big advantage.

GERGEN: I think john's argument is exactly right. Romney has to shake up this race, but the first few minutes, I will look who is more relaxed, who is looser? Who connects more? Style matters.

COOPER: Everybody says President Obama is an experienced debater. He has not debated since 2008, whereas Romney has.

BORGER: He has been on a different kind of stage. And I think what Mitt Romney has to do tonight, to convince people that as Ann Romney was taking before, and by the way, she makes the case for Mitt Romney sometimes better than Mitt Romney does himself.

She was saying he has been preparing his whole life to fix the economy, and that he can fix it, and they have to -- John, the word was trust. They have to trust him to make their lives better.

COOPER: Do these guys get nervous? I mean, I know they are exhilarated.

KING: You know when you are moderating the debates yourself, when they are lined up, they are all different. Some make a last- minute bathroom break, some are fixing their ties, some want to be alone, and some want everyone with them.

GERGEN: A really good speaker has to have butterflies.

COOPER: It helps you rise to the moment.

CASTELLANOS: When you think of the job these guys are competing for what is the job?

COOPER: Pressure job.

CASTELLANOS: Think about the great American presidents. Ask the American people who will give the same answers, FDR, Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton. And why, the new deal, new frontier, don't stop thinking about tomorrow, you know --

COOPER: Love doing that Bill Clinton imitation.

CASTELLANOS: It's the same guy. Why? The president's job is to take you to what's next, to the new -- to that Promised Land. The president's job is to be Moses in many ways.

CARVILLE: People are watching this. One guy is the president of the United States of America. The other guy wants to be president. He is supposed to be competent, supposed to be able to answer questions. They don't care if you haven't debated in four years, they don't care if you are tired. They don't care if it's hard. They really don't. It's a big job, it's a hard campaign, knew that before you got into it if you have had the job for four years, defend yourself.

If you want the job, who cares? It's a big stage out there, tough, nervous, got butterflies, everything else, a lot riding on it, too bad, the presidency of the United States. It's a huge job. Get after it, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: With all due respect to Alex, I don't think people are looking for Moses. People are a lot smarter than that, and frankly more cynical and a little more tired than that.

Having debated a few times, I would say that the challenge is to answer the question, to engage with your opponent, and James is exactly right. People want to see a little battle, but to never forget as Michelle Obama said very well.

The people you are talking to are not in that room. The people you're talking to are voters who haven't made up their mind. And that's a very tricky balancing act.

COOPER: James, is that the kind of tough love speech you would give to your candidate right before going out?


CARVILLE: Yes. Yes. I would say --

COOPER: Because by the way, you just made me really nervous.


COOPER: I'm now nervous based on your speech.

CARVILLE: It's going to be -- you know what, it's nerve- wracking, and I'll tell you one thing. The Obamas are not thinking about their anniversary right now.


CARVILLE: I can guarantee you that. Last thing on their mind.

CASTELLANOS: That's the reason we put this kind of primitive thing. And we put these two guys in the arena and we make them go at each other.

COOPER: Fierce rivals.

CASTELLANOS: This could be a contest that's thousands of years old. But by the way, this is still the land of endless promise and --


CASTELLANOS: This still -- this is a country by going what's next and we do want -- that's why Reagan was successful, FDR was successful. We don't want a leader who does not know where we are all going.

FIORINA: Absolutely, we want --


CARVILLE: Lincoln-Douglas went 2 1/2 hours, and it was a close -- it was a close Senate race.

FIORINA: Or more.

COOPER: Yes. And there were no -- there were no commercial breaks.


COOPER: The debate is going to be an hour and a half. Our coverage continues afterward. A lot of fact-checking.

Let's go to Candy in the debate hall -- Candy. Sorry. Wolf, let's go to you.

BLITZER: All right. Anderson, thanks very much.

I just want to remind our viewers, at the bottom of the screen, you're going to see some squiggly lines. We've assembled a focus group of undecided Colorado voters, they're watching it. We're going to see what they like in this debate. What they don't like in this debate. There's going to be a lot of squiggly lines at the bottom. You're going to have a chance to see how they're reacting. This is the only place you're going to see that kind of undecided voter react.

We're standing by. Jim Lehrer is the moderator. He's getting ready to ask the first question as a result of a flip of a coin. The president of the United States will give the first answer and the last word will go to Mitt Romney.

Here is Jim Lehrer.