WASHINGTON (TheBlaze/AP) -- A presidential debate is much more than just the 90 minutes onstage. For the campaigns, it's a complex, three-part performance, and -- despite the fact that the candidates haven't yet met face-to-face at the venue -- the first portion of the debate has actually already started.
Part I: Aw-Shucks Time:
Nobody wants to sound like a winner -- not yet. Low expectations can help a so-so performance seem like a success.
So President Barack Obama calls Republican challenger Mitt Romney "a good debater" and says he's "just okay" himself. His aides grouse that Romney's been getting more rehearsal time, while Obama's busy being president.
For his part, Romney praises Obama as "a very eloquent, gifted speaker." And, despite his numerous GOP primary match-ups, Romney notes, "I've never been in a presidential debate like this."
Part II: Tension City:
The first of the three presidential debates -- Wednesday at 9 p.m. EDT in Denver -- should bring the biggest audience of any campaign event. More than 52 million TV viewers watched Obama's initial match-up with John McCain in 2008.
Despite all the rehearsal, something's bound to take the candidates by surprise, and they'll be judged by how they improvise on the fly. Talk about "tension city," as former President George H.W. Bush described it.
But maybe Romney and Obama should each take a deep breath. After all, how likely is it that either one will commit a big enough blunder - -or score a large enough triumph -- to overshadow months of campaigning? Studies find viewers tend to see the guy they preferred going into the debate as the winner when it's over.
"When is it that anybody performs so badly that you'd just say, `Oh, my God, I would never vote for this person'?" said Rutgers University professor Richard Lau, who studies how voters decide. "Someone would have to seem so incompetent. That's not going to happen."
Part III: The Spin:
It's not over when the candidates walk off stage.
Campaign aides and big political names will descend on the "spin room" to tell reporters and after-debate TV audiences that the other guy blew it, and why.
Viewers may feel they're judging what they saw and heard for themselves. But campaign strategists think getting the spin right goes a long way toward deciding who "won."
According to Tad Devine, who was a top adviser to Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, pre-debate expectations and post-debate spin "can take on more significance than what happened in the debate itself."
"Each one of those three is critically important," he said.
The Candidates Prepare:
With Wednesday just around the corner, the presidential candidates are leaving the heavy lifting of campaigning to their running mates Tuesday as they spend one more day preparing for their first debate.
Obama is in Henderson, Nev., for a strategy run-through ahead of the debate in Denver; Romney is set to spend most of Tuesday in debate prep at a Denver hotel.
"In my view it's not so much winning and losing or even the people themselves, the president and myself -- it's about something bigger than that," Romney told a cheering crowd of thousands at a rally Monday night.
He also told supporters he would get America working again. "Jobs is job one under my administration," Romney said, debuting a new line midway through his standard campaign speech.
Both candidates reached out to Hispanic voters, a growing constituency in Colorado.
The White House said Monday that Obama will designate the home of labor leader Cesar Chavez as a national monument during a campaign swing through California next week.
Romney brought up immigration in an interview published Tuesday by The Denver Post, saying he would honor temporary work permits for young illegal immigrants who were allowed to stay in the U.S. because of an executive order signed this summer by Obama.
In Iowa on Tuesday, Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, is set to visit three towns during a bus tour. The Wisconsin congressman will be in Clinton, Muscatine and Burlington.
Vice President Joe Biden has two campaign events scheduled in another swing state, North Carolina. He'll be in Charlotte and Asheville.