If you had any doubt about the stakes for Mitt Romney in Wednesday night's debate, look at the results of recent Republican focus group interviews in Ohio with uncommitted, independent blue-collar voters.
Bottom line: These voters, who backed President Obama in 2008 but aren't sold this time around, know next-to-nothing good about Romney.
They know about Bain Capital and how Romney supposedly was "closing businesses, sending jobs overseas to China." And they're well aware of Romney's self-inflicted wounds, especially his comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes -- remarks women in particular found highly offensive.
But the focus groups didn't know about Romney's success running the Salt Lake City Olympics or his tenure as governor of Massachusetts or, even, his proposals for creating jobs and jump-starting the economy.
"To many of them, he was just the caricature that has (been) painted in negative ads," according to a memo summarizing the findings by the Tarrance Group, which conducted the focus groups for Resurgent Republic, a GOP research firm.
And there have been plenty of negative ads against Romney, with the Obama campaign outspending Romney's campaign nearly two to one in key swing states like Ohio. In fact, critics of Romney's campaign say one reason he's lost ground in the polls in states like Ohio is because he's allowed the President to define him.
But that's not to say there's all good news for the president. Despite the negative ads - and their current impressions about Romney - these blue-collar voters still aren't embracing Mr. Obama. Many say they've fallen out of the middle class, so the current debate about helping the middle class doesn't apply to them. They want someone to talk about getting people back in the middle class, and they're willing to consider an alternative to the president--or perhaps will stay home on Nov. 6.
"These are people who voted for Obama and took a step away from him. The question is what are neither of two candidates giving them," said Ed Goeas, CEO of the Tarrance Group, who conducted the focus groups for Resurgent Republic. "They have a lot of cynicism toward the barrage of advertising on both sides, and they see the debates as looking at the candidates with an 'unfiltered' view--that was term that kept popping up."
That's an opportunity for Romney, but based on their comments, it won't be easy to win them over.
There were several notable themes to emerge - especially on the economy. Some of these voters are dramatically worse off now than four years ago - they've lost jobs or make a lot less money. But even they are willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt on the economy.
That's Romney's key campaign issue. He's built his entire campaign around the premise that the president has failed, and that he knows how to get America back to work. But in these focus groups, the president is not to blame for their financial situation.
Repeatedly, they said they didn't know enough about Romney or how he would govern. And, the memo says, his negative images weigh heavily.
The memo says the "good news" out of the focus groups for Romney is that these undecided voters are "open" to learning more about Romney and "excited" about the upcoming debates.
"If Romney closes strong and articulates a clear vision for improving our national economy, many of these voters would be willing to vote for him," according to the memo summarizing the findings.
That's Romney's opportunity Wednesday night - and his challenge.