Obama debate prep details? Mum's the word

Despite not having any one-on-one meetings with foreign leaders during his visit at the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama's address was certainly aimed at leaders from the Middle East and North Africa. Nancy Cordes reports.
Spencer Platt

LAS VEGAS Fearful that any tidbit of information about President Obama's debate prep might disclose his strategy to Mitt Romney's campaign, his staffers are treating it like state secrets.

"It just doesn't make a lot of sense for us to get into that," said White House press secretary Jay Carney of the rhetorical calisthenics, verbal jumping jacks and oratorical squat thrusts that make up the president's training exercises for tomorrow night's 90-minute face-off with Romney in Denver.

Mr. Obama didn't want to discuss his debate prep either. During a break in his rehearsal sessions, he left Debate Camp to visit the Hoover Dam. He said he had never been there before and found it to be a "spectacular" sight, but he cut off his chat with reporters when they started asking about his debate prep.

And Jay Carney was taking his lead from the president. At a press briefing at which he discussed such other matters as sanctions on Iran, the ongoing violence in Iraq, the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and new criticism from Republican congressional Leaders about Mr. Obama's handling of budget matters, Carney and his campaign counterpart Jen Psaki, were carefully guarded about the debate preparations.

Struggling for a scintilla of insight into the debate prep, a reporter asked Carney if he'd liken the process to cramming for a test.

"I wouldn't characterize it at all," he said. Neither would he say how Mr. Obama plans to address Romney in the debate: as Governor, Mr. Romney or Mitt.

From other sources it's known the preparation includes mock debates in which Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, is playing the role of Romney.

"I'd love to give you some details," said campaign press secretary Jen Psaki, at the same press briefing with Carney, but she said it's just not done. "Traditionally, it's never been the case to disclose what happens at these debate preps," she said.

Actually, Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe, now a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, wrote about the debate prep four years ago in his 2009 book "The Audacity to Win." In a passage quoted by the Associated Press, Plouffe said the practice sessions were held on a replica of the debate stage "practically right down to the carpeting."

Unlike Romney, who took part in 19 debates with his Republican rivals during the primaries, Mr. Obama, as an unopposed incumbent, was spared that kind of preparation. But he's had plenty of experiences of a similar kind.

Since taking office, he has taken part in 58 town meetings, over 370 interviews and more than 100 press availabilities, of which 19 were formal White House news conferences.

Asked how the preparation for those events differed from the president's debate prep, Carney wouldn't bite - saying he'd never been part of a debate prep before.

The president himself has gone to almost comical lengths to cast himself as the underdog in the debate. Though regarded by friend and foe as a highly-skilled orator, he described his debating skills Sunday as "just okay" while hailing Romney as "a good debater."

His debate camp operation is set up at a luxury resort hotel near Lake Las Vegas in the suburb of Henderson, Nev. He said his camp counselors are great, but spending all day in debate training "was a drag."

The president's debate strategy will become self-evident Wednesday night in his face-off with Romney.

He needs to be presidential, but respectful of his challenger. He needs to be confident and authoritative, but not appear imperious or condescending.

Even in silence, he needs to be guarded in his actions. To this day, it's remembered as a gaffe when President George H.W. Bush was seen to be checking his watch during his 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

More often, it's members of the audience who check their watches.

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.