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THE SITUATION ROOM

Presidential Candidates Set to Debate; Interview With Stephanie Cutter; Interview with Brian Schweitzer

Aired October 3, 2012 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

All eyes are on Denver tonight and the first debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama now just under three hours away. It's a critical contest for both men. CNN's national political correspondent Jim Acosta is getting some details of Romney's game plan for tonight. He's on the scene for us at the University of Denver. Jim, what are you picking up?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Romney campaign officials say the GOP nominee will not try to score a knockout punch tonight. Instead, they say he will zero in on the president's handling of the economy.

If the Romney game plan could be summed up in two phrases, it would be do no harm, and live to fight another day.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Just a few hours before one of the most important nights of his political life, Mitt Romney walked through the debate site in Denver prepped for his first one-on-one face-off with the president.

Campaign officials tell CNN Romney's game plan tonight is to provide a clear choice, talk about his plan to create jobs and contrast that with the president's performance on the economy. And in a sign of caution, the campaign says Romney won't be looking for a knockout punch.

One of Romney's top surrogates, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, says that's the right approach.

(on camera): Does Mitt Romney need to score a knockout punch?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I don't know. This is not an athletic competition. This is a debate between two men, one that is president and wants to stay there and one that wants to offer a new direction. It's about domestic issues and I'm excited about that.

ACOSTA: But all day long, the Romney campaign has signalled it will go after what it sees as another gaffe from Vice President Joe Biden at a rally in Charlotte.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is deadly earnest. How they can justify, how they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that's been buried the last four years.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In the richest country in the history of the world, this Obama economy has crushed the middle class.

ACOSTA: Romney's ad team quickly seized on the remarks churning out a Web video. At an event on Romney's behalf in Denver, Rubio piled on.

RUBIO: Those happen to be the words of the distinguished vice president of the United States, Mr. Joe Biden.

(BOOING)

RUBIO: No, don't boo. He's the best thing we got going, guys. Don't boo, because in a moment of clarity, in a brief moment of clarity, he just told us what we already knew.

ACOSTA: Romney's aides say they expect the president to call on the GOP nominee to offer specifics.

ROMNEY: We're going to limit deductions.

ACOSTA: But in an interview with a Denver TV station, Romney began to do just that.

ROMNEY: Well, you could do something -- for instance, as an option, you could say everybody's going to get up to a $17,000 deduction. And you can use your charitable deduction or your home mortgage deduction or others, health care deduction, and you can fill that bucket, if you have a $17,000 bucket that way and higher income people might have a lower number.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for all of that talk about zingers, Romney campaign officials would not say whether they have some one-liners saved up for later on tonight, but they did say it will not be difficult to go after the president on the economy.

Translation, Wolf, I think that means we will have to wait and see what happens later tonight.

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign, or at least we should say a Romney family member has tried to take Romney supporters out there and the rest of Americans looking forward to tonight's debate inside the Romney campaign debate preparations between Mitt Romney and Rob Portman, the Ohio senator who has been playing the role of President Obama. Tagg Romney tweeted out a picture earlier today of the two men during debate preparations earlier today.

BLITZER: You think we will get more details from Mitt Romney tonight on his tax program, for example? Got a little bit as you just mentioned, but do you think he's going to go into more specifics? Because I assume the president will challenge him on that.

ACOSTA: That's right.

The Romney campaign did not say whether or not he was going to go into specifics, but you're right that is the first time we have heard Mitt Romney put a number on all of this. For months, he has been telling reporters he would like to wait until he got into the Oval Office and start working with Congress on a framework for how to pay for those tax cuts in terms of limiting deductions.

But you have heard a lot of Republicans, and you have also heard the Obama campaign challenge Mitt Romney and say wait a minute, how can we elect this man if we will not talk about how he will pay for these tax cuts? Because if you don't pay for those tax cuts, as we all know, the deficit goes up.

So it's possible we may get more of those details tonight, and what we saw in that interview was a preview.

BLITZER: Under five weeks to go until the election. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

We're also learning what we can expect to a certain degree from President Obama tonight.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is also in Denver.

Jessica, what's the game plan for the president as far as we know?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

The president has already arrived toward the debate hall, and is now we're told relaxing at his hotel. Wolf, you would be hard-pressed not to pick up on the Obama campaign signals that no matter what happens tonight, it's likely they will claim Mitt Romney was short on details.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): The Obama campaign's latest expectations game, questioning whether Romney will share enough specifics about his policy proposals.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, OBAMA 2012 DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER: His details have been lacking throughout the course of the Romney campaign.

YELLIN: And preparing voters for the president to use every opportunity to press for them.

CUTTER: You know, if Mitt Romney attacks the president and challenges him on the facts, I think you can expect the president to lay out some of the facts of his own policies, but also Mitt Romney's policies.

YELLIN (voice-over): In a memo released the morning of the debate, the campaign spelled out five areas the president could call for more details tonight on Romney's plans for balancing the budget, small business growth, energy independence, improving schools and new trade agreements.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Governor Romney, he is a good debater. I'm just OK.

YELLIN: Mm-hmm. That was before days of debate prep. No doubt he's improved.

This afternoon, the president's team is challenging Governor Romney's newly revealed detail that he would give everyone a $17,000 tax deduction. In a blog post, the Obama campaign claims that policy would raise taxes for millions of middle-class Americans, insisting here is the problem. Many families deduct more than $17,000 now.

But we all know likability often matters more than details on these nights. Don Baer coached Bill Clinton for his 1996 debates.

DON BAER, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: There's a need for them to drop the veneer, and seem to be real people in this context, and the balancing act is between that, but also being a leader, being strong, because the country is looking for that, especially from an incumbent president.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: A lot of competing pressures on the president tonight, on both men, Wolf, but the Obama campaign already hammering on that one $17,000 tax deduction that the Romney campaign is pushing.

The Obama campaign, for example, has one footnote on their Web site saying average taxpayers who make between $100,000 to $200,000, 10 million of them deducted on average $28,999 just for their home mortgages alone. That's the level of detail they're pushing. So we could be in for a pretty wonky night this evening, Wolf.

BLITZER: On a very different note, you had an exclusive interview with the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. We will air that interview during our coverage leading up to the debate later tonight, and I have seen it. It's really excellent. We had a little piece of it yesterday.

But, what, today is the their 20th wedding anniversary, the Obamas. And as you like to say, they're double dating with the Romneys.

YELLIN: That's right.

I asked the first lady if this is how she ever imagined she would be spending her 20th wedding anniversary, and she laughed and she said it definitely is not. She gets very nervous during debates and sometimes feels like she is a mom watching her kid on the balance beam when the president is out there debating.

There's a lot more she has to say. I asked her about Ann Romney and the campaign. All of that is coming up later this evening during our coverage.

BLITZER: We will look forward to that full interview. Also look forward to Gloria Borger's interview with Ann Romney leading up to the debate as well. Stay with CNN for those interviews, obviously.

Jessica, thanks very much.

Kate Bolduan is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. She's also monitoring a developing story that is moving right now with potentially significant national security ramifications.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, Wolf.

We want to bring our viewers up to date. I know you have been following this as well, some very disturbing developments coming out of Syria between Syria and Turkey. At least five people were killed in a Turkish border town hit by shelling the Turks say came from Syrian government forces.

The Turkish military responded by firing targets in Syria after informing NATO and the United Nations. A senior Defense Department official tells CNN the Pentagon is watching the cross-border attacks with some degree of concern. But U.S. military officials don't believe it's going to become a broader conflict.

Syria and Turkey had close relations, including open travel and booming trade, but tension has been steadily increasing and ramping up since of course the start of the Syrian civil war. And NATO issued a statement just a short while ago saying very clearly that they stand with Turkey.

BLITZER: This is really significant, because Turkey is a NATO ally, not a major non-NATO ally, but a real NATO ally.

And the NATO treaty says an attack by one country on any NATO ally is an attack on all of the NATO allies. So if the Syrian regime, the military of President Bashar al-Assad, they get carried away, they're not only going to face the wrath of this one NATO ally, Turkey, but they're going to face the wrath of others, potentially the United States as well.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Just another thing adding to that horrible situation in Syria.

BLITZER: The NATO treaty mandates that.

Thanks very much.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: The Romney campaign is seizing on remarks about the middle class by the vice president, Joe Biden.

Is the vice president the best thing to happen to Republicans in the White House race? What is going on here? I will speak about that and a lot more about that with the Obama campaign's deputy manager, Stephanie Cutter. She's standing by to join us live from Denver.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama certainly well known for his speaking Skilling, but that doesn't mean he won't have some challenges to overcome tonight when he faces off with Mitt Romney.

Let's talk about that and more with the deputy campaign manager for the president, Stephanie Cutter.

She's joining us now live from Denver.

Stephanie, thanks very much for coming in.

What do you think -- I love asking these questions -- the biggest challenge the president has tonight is?

CUTTER: Well, Wolf, I think it's probably keeping his answers short, being concise, staying within those time limits.

He has got a lot he wants to say, and we have to stay within the constraints of the debate agreement. I think that is probably the biggest challenge. He is really looking forward to this. He's looking forward to continuing that conversation he has been having with the American people, speaking to them in their living rooms, about where we have been as a country over the past four years and where we're to go in a second Obama administration.

So, he is very much looking forward to this.

BLITZER: I know that you have been pressing the Romney campaign for specifics on, for example, his tax policy. Today, we did get one specific suggesting maybe there would be a cap on deductions at $17,000, whether for mortgage interest deductions, charitable contributions, health care deductions or whatever.

That's a pretty specific number. What do you think about that?

CUTTER: Well, I think that the net result is still the same.

That is a specific, but he has not told us how he is going to do that without raising taxes on the middle class. Even if you're capping deductions at $17,000, even if you're separating these deductions into different buckets with different caps on them, as they're now saying, you're still raising taxes on the middle class.

Even his own economists, economists that he relies on says you can't cut taxes by $5 trillion without paying for it by cutting deductions for people making $200,000 and less. That's just a fact. You can't do it. Even if you close every single deduction for people making over $200,000, or $250,000 for families, you're still a trillion dollars short.

So, at the end of the day, he has to tell us how he will do this without increasing taxes on the middle class, because so far the math just does not add up.

BOLDUAN: Now, Stephanie, Vice President Biden said yesterday that middle class has been buried, was buried over the last four years.

Not surprisingly, Republicans are jumping all over this, the campaign as well as surrogates. Listen here to Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Those are not my words. Those happen to be the words of the distinguished vice president of the United States, Mr. Joe Biden.

(BOOING)

RUBIO: No, don't boo. He's the best thing we got going, guys. Don't boo, because in a moment of clarity, in a brief moment of clarity, he just told us what we already knew.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Gaffe or no gaffe -- and I know you will tell me it was not a gaffe -- but isn't this still a problem for the president?

CUTTER: No.

You know, I heard Senator Rubio, and I have heard the Romney surrogates all day talking about that. You're right. They're really good at jumping at these out-of-context markets. We have seen how well the you didn't build that attack worked out for them. It's actually a net negative for them.

On this example, you know, what I don't get is why they don't agree with us that the middle class bore the brunt of the economic crisis. There should be no doubt about that. They bore the brunt, not just of what happened when -- what we were handed when we came into office, but a decade of policies that left them behind.

Those at the top did well. The middle class got crushed. So, we would be happy to have this debate. I hope it comes up tonight because the president has pursued -- everything he has done over the last four years with the vice president at his side has been to ensure that we can put security back on the table for the middle class, the security they had lost over the past decade.

BOLDUAN: But, Stephanie, does it still work to continue blaming the Bush administration for what the Obama administration was handed? Don't Republicans have a winning argument if you keep talking about what was handed to this president?

CUTTER: Well, I think the American people would disagree with you, Kate.

Any poll that you look at, they understand why we are in the situation that we're in. It didn't happen overnight, and we're not going to get out of it overnight. But they do understand what the president has done over the past four years to start rebuilding this economy in a way that's meant to last.

He's rebuilding it from the middle out, not the top down. It's not about blame. It's about identifying those policies that crashed our economy in the first place and punished the middle class. And they happen to be the same policies that I think we will hear from Mitt Romney tonight that he wants to return to.

That's what this conversation is. It's not about blame. It's about learning, learning what not to do. And that's part of the conversation that we will have tonight. We should not go back to the days where we have tax cuts for those at the top paid for by those of the middle class. We should not go back to the days where Wall Street gets to write its own rules and taxpayers are on the hook for another bank bailout.

That's exactly what we shouldn't do, but that's what Mitt Romney is promising to do.

BLITZER: Why do you think, Stephanie, the polls are tightening up rather dramatically in Florida and Virginia? I will put them up on the screen.

In Virginia, likely voters' choice for President Obama, President Obama 48 percent, Mitt Romney 46 percent. This is the NBC/"Wall Street Journal"/Marist poll. And in Florida, 47-46 percent, both polls well within the margin of error. What's going on here?

CUTTER: Well, Wolf, that's just one poll. I think there are probably other polls out there that shows that gap a little bit wider. So I don't think it's a dramatic closing.

But let's face it. We have always said that up until Election Day, this race is going to remain tight. There are other states in the same NBC poll, Ohio, where that gap is widening. We feel pretty good about where we are in the swing states, in those battleground states in making our argument and laying out the president's record and where he wants to take this country.

But I think under any scenario, this is going to remain tight up until the very end, and we have always predicted that.

BLITZER: Stephanie Cutter, we will check back with you after the debate later tonight. Thanks very much for coming in.

CUTTER: Absolutely. Thank you.

BLITZER: Earlier, by the way, we spoke to Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, who supports Mitt Romney. We got his perspective looking ahead as well.

And stay with us. We're getting closer and closer to the start of our special coverage of debate night in America, and it all starts right after THE SITUATION ROOM 7:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN and on CNN.com.

BOLDUAN: Also still ahead, history made on the baseball field by a mascot -- details coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Much more coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM on the lead-up to the first presidential debate. Stand by, new information coming in.

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: All right, stand by. We got a lot of other news coming up.

Expectations, that's a huge part of tonight's presidential debate. Who has it harder to achieve those expectations? Would it be President Obama or Governor Romney? Our political experts, they are standing by to weigh in.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're only half-an-hour or so away from the start of special coverage leading up to tonight's presidential debate, the first of three presidential debates, one vice presidential debate.

Anderson Cooper is joining us now with an excellent political panel to assess what is going on.

Welcome, Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Wolf.

It's going to be a very exciting night of politics here, indeed, the first presidential debate.

David Gergen and Gloria Borger, who has the most to win here tonight? Is it Mitt Romney, would you say?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think so.

I think Mitt Romney for the first time gets to stand on a stage with the president of the United States.

COOPER: And just by doing that...

BORGER: Just by doing that, he's elevated to a great degree.

I think, secondly, the expectations for him are lower. Our poll shows that most people by a large margin believe that the president is going to win this debate. What he has to do during this debate is put some meat on the bones of his proposals, look like a plausible replacement for Barack Obama. Because the American public can't say, "OK, we want to fire the president" unless we look at the person that might replace him as plausible and presidential.

GERGEN: This promises to be the biggest night of the campaign. Everything rides on this, I think for both candidates. Yes, it is a big, big night for Mitt Romney. I think the task for him is can he transform this race? Can he turn it upside down? He's been steadily behind. The polls were open; they're now closing. But he's been behind for a year. Can he change the dynamics of the race?

But I honestly think that the stakes are sky-high for the president. Because if he can win tonight, if he can pull that, he's got the possibility to open the race up, come -- and that will help him a lot. If he can get a victory in November, that's a substantial victory, it will give him enormous leverage as president in the months to come in the new term.

COOPER: I want to bring in the contributors, as well: Republican Alex Castellanos, Democrat James Carville, Republican Carly Fiorina, Democrat Van Jones. Does -- does Mitt Romney need to go on the aggressive, on the offensive tonight?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Sure, this is a debate, this is a gladiatorial contest. This is kind of a primitive thing we do as a culture. We don't know the challenges a president is going to get, but we know he's going to get something we can't imagine yet. So we want to test these men and their character and how do they respond under pressure.

And yes, they're going to test each other in that arena, but it's especially important for Mitt Romney, because he does want to say, look Obama in the eye and say, "Tell us how you're going to make the next four years any better."

COOPER: Doesn't Romney also need to worry, though, about coming off as mean? I mean, does he need to kind of come off as a warm guy that understands people -- what people are going through?

CASTELLANOS: That's going to be tough for these men, either of them, to be anything different than we've already seen in the past years. The most important thing for both of them, frankly, is to be authentic. This is not a night to be warm and lovey. This is a night, I think Gloria said, demonstrate your stature, and you can be president. And tell us how you'll change things, how you're going to make the next four years different from the last.

COOPER: James Carville, what are you going to look for?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I think the overwhelming possibility is both of them are going to do fine. They're both smart guys. They both have had a long time to prepare. They have a guy as a moderator that's a very honest, down-the-line guy. And I'm not saying this is going to happen. I hope something else happens. I hope it's a really exciting thing and they really go after each other and somebody follows up and we have a lot to talk about. But in the end, the overwhelming possibility is they both get up there, they speak good English, they answer the questions pretty well.

COOPER: Is that enough for Mitt Romney, though? Is that OK? Is that enough for Mitt Romney?

CARVILLE: You know, I think with Romney, he can -- Romney, he can try too hard. What he needs to do is get people to be willing to take another look at him. And if he can accomplish that tonight, and remember, this is 90 minutes, 270 minutes of debates. He's got 180 after tonight. We're talking about a small sliver of people that he needs to influence.

Where he can go wrong, if he tries to go too hard and tries to accomplish too much tonight. But again, I come back to the overwhelming possibility is they both do fine.

COOPER: When you heard -- when reports coming out of the Romney camp that he'd been preparing zingers, does that make you a little nervous? He hasn't been great at zingers or humor so far.

CARLY FIORINA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, first, I don't think zingers are Mitt Romney's style. And I think the most important thing is for him to be himself, who he is. I think voters smell inauthenticity a mile away. He is who he is.

I actually hope that the winner here tonight is the American people. And I don't mean to sound corny like that. What I mean is I think people watching need to really understand at the end of this 90 minutes what is the difference between these two men. What is the difference in their policy? And what Mitt Romney needs to do is explain how his policies will help more people.

COOPER: If folks don't understand that by now, I mean, isn't it late in the game?

FIORINA: I think -- look, I think frankly, most of this campaign has been slinging slogans back and forth. I don't think there's been a lot of detail from either candidate about why they think their policies are going to work. And I hope that Mitt Romney will challenge President Obama's track record just as President Obama has challenged Mitt Romney's track record.

COOPER: Van Jones?

VAN JONES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think we forget, those of us who live and breathe this stuff, you know, we've been hanging on every word. A lot of people, they didn't watch the convention. There was something, I think, called summer vacation. They weren't paying attention, you know. And so this is -- this is the beginning for a lot of people. For the first time, a lot of people are tuning in. Fifty million people are going to watch.

One thing I think is very interesting, though. The Obama campaign did everything it could to try to reduce expectations: "Oh, this guy has got a day job. He's got to run the country. He might be tired." It didn't work. The expectations are sky high because of the kind of president that he's been, because of the kind of man he's been, because he's been able to overcome so much in his live.

He loves Michael Jordan, and Michael Jordan always used to say, "I love it when the hype is big. I love it when the game is on the line." That's Obama. Despite all of the efforts to reduce expectations, his expectations are very, very high.

COOPER: It's interesting, though. He has not debated since 2008, though.

JONES: And that's what -- and that's what we've been trying to point out. He's rusty, he hasn't done this for a while.

(CROSSTALK)

JONES: Nobody believes it because of who he is.

COOPER: James, he doesn't mean that.

CARVILLE: President of the United States, man, you've got to game up and play.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: That's insane. He's got to do well.

And by the way, how do you know the zinger thing is not a head fake? How do you know they're not just telling the press that?

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Hold on, one at a time. Why would that be a head fake? Why would they even release that? Doesn't it raise expectations?

BORGER: Well, I talked to a senior advisor in the Romney campaign. And I said, "So what's all of this zinger stuff?"

He said, "Honestly, Gloria, I don't know where that's coming from. Every candidate has a couple of lines in his back pocket that you might use one way or another."

COOPER: But isn't it like a comedian saying, "I've got a great routine"? Right? I mean, that raises...

GERGEN: Exactly.

BORGER: But here's...

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Here's the problem for Mitt Romney. His worst moments during all of those primary debates, his worst moments and awkward moments were when something happened that he didn't quite anticipate, and he sort of put his arm on Rick Perry's shoulder...

COOPER: Ten thousand dollar bet?

BORGER: Ten-thousand dollar bet. And so what they're trying to do is anticipate everything so that Mitt Romney doesn't get a situation where he's feeling uncomfortable because he's not good at that.

GERGEN: That raises expectations.

FIORINA: President Obama is a president and a man of words. He's very good at words. Let's establish that.

GERGEN: You're right. It's just like a comedian saying I want to tell you a joke, and it deflates the joke. It doesn't have any spontaneity to it.

COOPER: I'm going to tell you a really funny joke. In ten seconds, and it's really going to be funny.

GERGEN: I disagree with just one thing. I think both probably will come out well, but I do think a tie goes to the president. I think at the end of the day...

CARVILLE: I think -- I don't know with the voters, OK, but I think the press, the people here, I think Romney -- I understand what you're saying politically, but I think it's like Sarah Palin and Biden. She got through the debate, and everybody said, "God, she did well." I'm a little bit of a -- with the voters...

GERGEN: But don't you think it's up to Romney to tell...

CASTELLANOS: I just want to say that clearly tonight, both candidates are the underdogs. So who knows? There's room for both.

But there is a difference between a zinger, which is what small campaigns think of their own candidate when they think he's small, but you do want to demonstrate strength, and creating a moment of strength that says this is how I'll lead this country. Those are the moments I paid for this microphone, and it can change the debate.

COOPER: We've got to take a quick break. Mitt Romney is closing the gap, the race obviously getting tighter in major swing states. John King is at the magic wall for us to break it all down. Stay tuned for that. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right, these are live pictures coming in from the University of Denver, the debate hall. This is where the presidential debate -- debate will take place. We're all counting down to that.

The gap, by the way, is closing between Mitt Romney and President Obama in some of those key battleground swing states. Our chief national correspondent, John King, is doing some of the math for us. He's got a special analyst who's joining him. He's joining us as well. JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And Wolf, with the race tightening, one of the most colorful Democrats in the country, Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana, is with me.

The race is tightening. We're going into the first debate, five weeks left until the election. A little bit shy of that. The big, dominant focus ought to be the economy.

I want to ask you a couple questions. No. 1, can Mitt Romney win this election? I know you want the president to win, but can Mitt Romney win if he's tied with the president on this question: "Who would do a better job handling the economy?" Right now the incumbent, who's been president in very tough economic years, is tied with his challenger. What is -- in a debate, you're a good debater, what does Mitt Romney have to do to change that number?

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER (D), MONTANA: First off, Mitt Romney has run a race to this point of just saying, "I'm not Barack Obama." And that's not going to be enough. As it turns out, people like Barack Obama, and I think there's about an 8 percent differential in likeability.

He's got a big problem in Ohio. Let's just talk about Ohio. The auto bailout. In Ohio, Michigan, and some other of these Rust Belt states, those car manufacturing jobs are important.

KING: You want to talk about Ohio, here's the electoral map as we have it right now. Two-thirty-seven strong or leading for the president; 191 strong or leading. You don't have to be a rocket scientist. The race it to 270. So the president's not easy, but he has an easier path to 270.

You mentioned Ohio. That is one of the battleground states right now where the president actually has a lead in most polls outside the margin of error. If you look at Florida, you look at Virginia, there are three or four...

SCHWEITZER: It's slipping away for Romney; slipping away.

KING: Well, if Ohio slips away, and let's hypothetically give it to the president. If -- no Republican has ever won. We have to go back to Abraham Lincoln days, when the Republican Party was founded. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. Can Mitt Romney cede that one to the president, which would put the president at 255, if nothing else changed, and win this election?

SCHWEITZER: Here's what I'm going to predict. I think Florida is going to go for Romney.

KING: All right.

SCHWEITZER: I think North Carolina is going to go for Romney.

KING: OK.

SCHWEITZER: And let's go out west. I know this well. I am the only governor in America that's a graduate of Colorado State University, so we'll talk about Colorado.

KING: I was just there. It's at tight as can be.

SCHWEITZER: Yes, except that Obama is going to win.

KING: You're convinced of that?

SCHWEITZER: I'm convinced. The Latino vote.

KING: Yes.

SCHWEITZER: And if that vote is growing very rapidly, I'm going to give -- I'm going to give Nevada to Romney.

KING: Highest unemployment in the country.

SCHWEITZER: Plus, the houses are upside down, and there's itinerant people out there. So that's going to go with Romney.

Iowa, Obama.

KING: You think Obama?

SCHWEITZER: Yes.

KING: Again out there, the Republicans have evened the registration divide, but...

SCHWEITZER: Michigan, the Ryan bump doesn't exist.

KING: If you give Iowa right there to the president, the president is reelected. Wisconsin is a state where the president right now has a pretty -- you know, six points, but...

SCHWEITZER: He wins. And Virginia is a toss-up. We'll give that to Romney.

KING: What about New Hampshire?

SCHWEITZER: New Hampshire has gotten away. New Hampshire has gotten away.

KING: You're going to give that to the president, too?

SCHWEITZER: I'm giving that to the president.

KING: So you've got him at 284, with Virginia a question mark.

SCHWEITZER: I don't know.

KING: You don't know. Let's give it to Romney. Let's give it to Romney. If you give it to Romney, that's still a pretty convincing win for the president there, especially given this. I want to come back to the other map, because I want to show you. This is -- this is what confounds a lot of Republicans.

No. 1, they say why isn't Romney doing better here, on who would better handle the economy?

They also say look at this. If you look at this historically, this is the first three quarters of GDP in the reelection years. George H.W. Bush actually had pretty good growth. American people just didn't buy it when he told of that. He lost the election.

Bill Clinton had this big second quarter in 1996. Bob Dole was toast from that point on.

George W. Bush got through -- George W. Bush got through what was a pretty struggling economy, but look at this. Look at this, Governor. President Obama's first two quarters -- we don't have a third quarter yet -- dismal even compared to 2004. How is this president -- forget his name, forget his party -- how is this president even in play?

SCHWEITZER: Because the American people are a lot smarter than some folks give them credit for. They know that we went off the fiscal cliff. They know that, when Lehman Brothers went broke on the September 15 of 2008, they were looking at each other all over this country, all over the world: is my bank going to be open tomorrow?

And somebody is believing in this economy. The stock market has doubled. People are reinvesting, and people are more optimistic. They know we've had a tough go. But they also know how we got here, and they don't want to go back to the policies that got us here. They think that Obama has a better idea than Romney right now. That's what your polls show. And they like -- they like Obama more than they like Romney. It's about an 8 percent likeability index difference.

KING: The likeability, and this is something we'll watch tonight, Wolf, as we do watch the debate tonight. You saw Governor Schweitzer's pretty optimistic take there for the president. Governor Romney needs to change that.

BLITZER: Quick question, Governor. Is it true that those who are still undecided normally break for the challenger, because they don't know the challenger as well as opposed to the incumbent? Everybody knows the president of the United States. The undecided at this late, late moment might break for Romney?

SCHWEITZER: Yes, that is a distinct possibility. And that means that we might have the first election since, well, just a few elections ago that the popular vote actually goes to the person who loses. Because these -- these targeted states, these battleground states, if it looks like Obama is going to carry the day, but he may not win the popular vote.

KING: That would be this election you're talking about.

SCHWEITZER: That's this election.

KING: That would be this election, 48-48. Slight advantage in the popular vote. But Wolf, you know how that one turned out. We had to wait awhile for that one.

SCHWEITZER: Let us hope that the Supreme Court doesn't decide this election.

KING: Amen.

BLITZER: Let's hope no hanging chads.

Guys, thanks very much.

It's not just the words that often matter on debate night. Body language says a lot, as well. Up next, the signs to watch for, like how to tell when President Obama and Governor Romney are nervous.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There can be only one winner in tonight's presidential debate and that may be determined, not necessarily only by what the candidates say, but what they -- by what they don't say, as well.

CNN's John Berman is here. He's got some details and specifically, how important would body language be?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Everyone says it's very important, Wolf. This will just be the fourth time these men have actually met. What will they look like when they greet each other? What will they look like, side by side? There are so many questions. Here's a look sort of at Obama versus Romney by the numbers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN (voice-over): Mitt Romney, Barack Obama. Two men, 90 minutes, one goal. Win. Just like "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two men enter. One man leaves.

BERMAN: Yes, they'll talk jobs. They'll talk health care. They'll talk immigration. But...

(on camera) ... is it only what they say to them?

COSTAS PANAGOPOULOS, POLITICAL SCIENCE ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, FORDHAM UNIVERSITY: No, that's absolutely not. Generally speaking, the non-verbal communication that's going on during a debate will also be very important.

BERMAN: Obama, 6'1", 180 pounds. Romney, 6'1 1/2", 184. Obama, age 51. Romney, 65. But doctors say appears younger than his age. His heart rate, a cool 40. Obama, 56.

Between their ears, both educated at elite prep schools, Punaho and Cranbrook. Both with Harvard Law degrees. Romney has an MBA, too, for extra measure.

Smart, fit, focused men, but expect different physical signals. The president's message...

PANAGOPOULOS: In charge. In charge, ready to go. Things are not happening by accident. Things have been deliberate. And he has a plan, and he has the conviction that that's the best plan.

BERMAN: The goal, calm confidence. What to avoid...

PANAGOPOULOS: He purses his lips when he's nervous. Maybe looks down. Gathers his thoughts. It may be a signal that he's nervous or tense.

Romney tends to get argumentative, I think, when he gets nervous.

ROMNEY: Are you just going to keep talking? Or are you going to let me finish with my -- what I have to say?

PANAGOPOULOS: And I think that that could create some interesting moments in these debates.

BERMAN: For Romney, the goal may be warm smiles, kind eyes, open posture. Avoid condescension.

PANAGOPOULOS: Romney has to make a connection with average Americans and to come across as one of them. He's got to make that connection that people are going to trust him and give him their vote.

BERMAN: And remember this about debates. Whatever the mission, there may be mayhem. All that is certain: two will enter. One will leave victorious.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: You know, and it really will be uncharted territory. When they shake hands, these two men haven't met for years. So interesting to see.

BLITZER: I'm going to be watching all of that, the body language. You just hear it on the radio, that's not a good -- you have to watch it.

BERMAN: And watch it on CNN.

BLITZER: Of course. That goes without saying.

Thank you very much.

We're only minutes away from our special coverage of tonight's face-off between President Obama and Governor Romney. Stand by. Debate night in America is about to begin.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Politicians are known for flip-flopping, and it's sometimes not what they say, but how they say it. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Same president...

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Obama presidency.

MOOS: ... two different accents.

OBAMA: I'm the son of a black man.

Where's your dollar?

I can no more disown him.

You've got some better speakers.

That made me cringe.

In this country.

That may seem jarring to the untrained ear.

MOOS: What seems especially jarring to some conservative ears is that the president's speech changes when he addresses an African- American audience.

TUCKER CARLSON, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: The falseness here is overwhelming.

MOOS (on camera): But some linguists say that the falseness would have been if the president didn't change his speech...

(voice-over) ... especially considering he's African-American.

DENNIS PRESTON, PROFESSOR, OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY: And that audience would say, huh, what makes him such a stuffed shirt.

MOOS: But conservative critics like Sean Hannity are attacking President Obama's delivery.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS COMMENTATOR: He went into Al Gore preaching mode. And, Republicans have the wrong...

MOOS: For instance, when Al Gore addressed the NAACP.

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The taproot of racism is hundreds of years long!

MOOS (on camera): What critics call pandering...

OBAMA: We've got too many daddies not acting like daddies.

MOOS: ... linguists call accommodating.

PRESTON: As linguists, we find is switching back and forth to be pretty natural, pretty automatic and very often outside the conscious control of the speaker.

MOOS: But accommodating is harder to pull off when it's not your natural dialect.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?

MOOS: Romney seemed to realize that when he poked fun at himself talking southern.

ROMNEY: Morning, y'all. Good to be with you.

MOOS: Hillary Clinton was mocked as Kentucky Fried Hillary when she went over the top at an African-American church.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I've come too far from where I started from.

MOOS: Or in this case...

JAMES CLEVELAND, SINGER (singing): I've come too far.

MOOS: Hillary was actually performing lines from a gospel hymn made famous by Reverend James Cleveland.

What the politicians do is not to be confused with an actual medical condition called Foreign Accent Syndrome that changed this Florida woman's accent following a stroke from this...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've got fabulous things.

MOOS: ... to this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I felt like I was going bloody crazy.

MOOS: For politicians acquiring an accent...

OBAMA: The miracle that baby...

MOOS: ... sometimes can't be overcome.

(MUSIC: "WE WILL OVERCOME")

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN...

GORE: The crooked places shall be made straight.

MOOS: ... New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)