(CBS News) Of the 38 days remaining until Election Day, the most important of all may be this coming Wednesday, October 3, when President Obama and Mitt Romney meet in Denver for the first of three debates. The stakes are sky high, especially for Mr. Romney.
GOP running mate Paul Ryan made the case for a Mitt Romney presidency Saturday in New Hampshire, one of nine remaining "toss up" states in the CBS News electoral map.
""We have got to stop spending money we don't have," Ryan told a crowd in Derry. "We must get this balanced budget. We must get this debt under control."
Vice President Joe Biden campaigned in battleground Florida, where he argued that the Obama administration inherited trillion-dollar deficits from the Bush administration.
"They put two wars on a credit card. Not paying a penny, not paying a penny," said Biden. "The result was by the time the reins got turned back over to Barack and me, they had doubled the national debt in eight years."
Meanwhile, President Obama and Mitt Romney were hunkered down Saturday, cramming for next week's debate showdown. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, is playing Romney in practice sessions with the president. Ohio Senator Rob Portman is playing Obama in debate prep with Romney, reprising a role he played for John McCain in 2008.
Both campaigns are working hard to lower expectations by praising their opponent. A Romney advisor said the president has the advantage as "one of the most talented political communicators in modern history." The Obama campaign said Romney has the edge, having debated about two dozen times during the Republican primary campaign.
"Both of these individuals have had ample experience debating, but Governor Romney has had more practice recently, and practice counts," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who runs the non-partisan Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania and co-authored the book "The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election."
"The challenger has the opportunity to establish he is competent to stand up and hold his own against the president of the United States," she said. "A challenger who accomplishes that, in effect, wins the first debate."
Jamieson said both candidates are hoping for a big moment that voters will remember, like John McCain's invocation of an Ohio plumber who had questioned Mr. Obama's tax plan four years ago.
"In the third debate, John McCain repeatedly alluded to Joe the Plumber and the allegation that Barack Obama would share the wealth," she said. "We know that effect in the debate was instrumental in re-shaping enough public perceptions of McCain to help him increase his standing in the surveying that we were doing."
But as McCain later learned, even a memorable debate moment only carries a candidate only so far.
The live TV audience for the first Obama-Romney debate is expected to be about 60 million people. That's roughly about half the number expected to vote in the presidential election.