LAS VEGAS — President Obama arrived in this desert city Sunday hoping that a few days outside Washington will help focus his attention on the high-stakes presidential debate this week.
After landing in Las Vegas, Obama spent several hours at his hotel, then took a break to rally 11,000 supporters at a high school. He took the stage shortly after sunset and made reference to Wednesday night’s debate in Denver at the start of his remarks.
Obama called Republican nominee Mitt Romney a good debater. “I’m just okay,” he said. Both campaigns have sought to play down expectations in hopes of receiving good reviews if one candidate outperforms the other.
The president said he isn’t concerned about who will “put more points on the scoreboard” when he faces off against Romney at the University of Denver for the first of three debates.
While Romney is preparing “zingers” for their matchup, Obama added that he is more interested in having a “serious debate” about the country’s future.
Earlier in the day, aboard Air Force One en route to Las Vegas, Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the president views the forum “as an opportunity to continue his conversation with the American people as he has been doing over the last several months — including at the [Democratic] convention, which was probably our largest audience to date.”
Psaki added that Obama “wants to speak directly to the families of people who are on their couches at home — having snacks, drinking a beer, drinking soda, whatever it is — and tuning in for the first time.”
Recent polls have showed Obama taking a small but clear lead in the race, both nationally and in key swing states. GOP strategists acknowledge that the pressure is on Romney to deliver a decisive victory in the three debates.
On Sunday, Romney surrogates argued that a good showing by him would help turn the race around.
In an appearance on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) predicted that by Thursday, “all of you are going to be shaking your head saying it’s a brand-new race with 33 days to go.”
That’s why Obama has carved out three days to prepare with top advisers. Senior campaign adviser David Axelrod and pollster Joel Benenson traveled with the president aboard Air Force One. They are part of a team that will hunker down in Henderson, a suburb about 20 miles outside Las Vegas.
Democratic consultants Ron Klain and Anita Dunn, along with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is playing Romney in mock debates with Obama, also will attend the private sessions, White House officials said.
Obama is holding his debate camp in Nevada, a swing state he has visited eight times this year but that remains saddled with the highest unemployment rate in the nation. The housing downturn hit the state hard, and polls show a close race here.
In addition to the high school rally, the president is expected to make a few unscheduled appearances over the next two days at diners or other popular locations to continue garnering media attention.
After the debate, Obama will begin a tour of swing states, holding a rally in Denver on Thursday, then flying to Wisconsin for another gathering that afternoon before returning to Washington. On Friday, he is scheduled to appear in Vienna, then fly to Cleveland for another campaign event.
Obama won Wisconsin comfortably four years ago, but polls show it has become more competitive since Romney selected Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) as his running mate. The president campaigned in Milwaukee last weekend.
“It’s a state where the Romney team obviously has tried to create buzz around their ticket,” Psaki said. “We’re not taking anything for granted in Wisconsin, and that’s why we’re going back there.”