Polls: Obama better than "OK" in 2008 debates

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accompanied by his wife Cindy, shakes hands with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., accompanied by his wife Michelle, after a presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008. AP Photo/Ron Edmonds

Barack Obama and Republican John McCain greet each other at the end of their third and final presidential debate at Hofstra University on October 15, 2008 in Hempstead, New York.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

(CBS News) As both sides work to set expectations in advance of the first presidential debate, the Obama campaign hasn't just set the bar for their candidate low -- they've placed it on the ground.

For weeks, campaign officials have argued that the president's widely hailed oratorical skills just don't translate in a debate setting. He's too long-winded, they say. His answers are expansive and filled with the minutiae of policy, while debates call for pithy one-liners and succinct bromides.

"This isn't the ideal format for him, so, you know, we'll see how things go on Wednesday evening," campaign spokesperson Jen Psaki said wistfully in an MSNBC interview Monday.

"Mitt Romney's a good debater. I'm just OK," the normally self-confident President Obama opined at the start of a rally in Las Vegas, Nevada Sunday night, trying his own hand at lowering expectations.

It would all be much more convincing if this supposedly weak debater hadn't bested Senator John McCain in all three of their presidential debates, according to insta-polls CBS News and Knowledge Networks conducted at the time.

In those polls of 500 nationally representative undecided voters, which were conducted immediately after all three debates, 39 percent thought then-Senator Obama won the first debate; 24 percent thought McCain won; and 37 percent considered it a tie.

And his numbers only improved over the course of those debates. A full 53 percent of those polled thought Mr. Obama won the third debate, more than double the 22 percent who thought McCain won.

It's not hard to see why the Obama campaign - and the president himself - would want to lower expectations for his performance Wednesday night. Polls show he has a lead in most battleground states, so the main goal is to simply emerge from the debates unscathed.

Moreover, the Obama camp knows that the Romney campaign sees the debates - and the first debate in particular - as a chance to change the trajectory of the race. They're well aware that Romney has been preparing steadily for months, and will come armed with his best arguments.

In an attempt to defuse the impact of those arguments in advance, the president told attendees at his rally last night, "I know folks in the media are speculating already on who's going to have the best zingers," adding, "but what I'm most concerned about is having a serious discussion about what we need to do to keep the country growing and restore security for hardworking Americans. That's what people are going to be listening for, that's the debate that you deserve."

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.

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