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Obama camp plays down debate expectations

LAS VEGAS Kicking off three days of preparation for his first high-stakes debate Wednesday night with Mitt Romney, President Obama portrayed himself as the underdog.

"Governor Romney - he's a good debater," said the president. "I'm just okay."

Mr. Obama held a twilight rally on a high school athletic field about 20 minutes from the Vegas strip, and said he's looking forward to the debate.

When he told the crowd, "folks in the media are speculating already on whose gonna have the best zingers," some supporters in the estimated 11,000-strong crowd shouted back: "You are."

The president arrived in this gambling mecca Sunday afternoon and set up debate camp at a luxury resort hotel just east of the city in Henderson, Nevada.

His preparations will include mock debates with Sen. John Kerry, D-MA., playing the role of Mitt Romney, though Kerry did not fly here aboard Air Force One.

Why Nevada?

"This is a key state for us and for our campaign," Obama Campaign press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One on the flight to Las Vegas.

It's a battleground state that President Obama won handily in 2008 by a margin of 55 percent to 43 percent, but which current polls show as a toss-up.

This is Mr. Obama's eighth visit to Nevada this year, and his Sunday evening event was his fourth campaign rally in this state.

President Obama's remarks on the debate reflected his campaign's strategy of trying to lower expectations for his performance.

"He has had less time to prepare than we anticipated," said Psaki. "It's difficult to schedule significant blocks of time when you're the president, regardless of your party."

Like the president, she too portrays Romney as a more skilled and experienced debater, thanks to the 23 debates Romney was in during the primary campaign.

In rare praise of Romney, the Obama campaign spokeswoman said: "He's been disciplined and has been able to give short answers, so we know that's a strength."

Psaki said President Obama "has a tendency to give longer, substantive answers."

She said part of the debate prep is to help the president boil down his debate responses to their essence, to better fit within the time restraints of the debate.

Citing reports that Romney has been prepping zingers to use against the president, Psaki said "that's not what the president's focus is on."

"So if you're expecting that, that's probably not what he's going to deliver on," she said of zingers by Mr. Obama.

She told reporters that he wants to use the debates to speak directly to the American people about his vision for "moving the country forward."

If true, it's a surprising strategy. Clever zingers are usually the basis on which pundits judge which candidates win, and the only thing - besides gaffes - that are remembered from the debates.