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Barack Obama & Mitt Romney gear up for face-to-face presidential debate

DENVER, Colorado -- President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at last stand face-to-face Wednesday to duel for the White House in the first of a trio of debates just 33 days before American voters decide their fates.

Obama heads into the showdown in Denver with a narrow lead in his bid to defy historic omens sown by a stubbornly sluggish economic recovery, and to become only the second Democrat since World War II to win a second term.

Republican Romney, down in almost all the key battleground states that will decide who wins the 270 electoral votes needed to win on Nov. 6, seeks a sharp change of momentum in a race that seems to be slipping away.

The rivals will step up to podiums at the University of Denver in the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado, at 7 p.m. (0100 GMT) to clash over the economy and other domestic issues.

But veteran anchor Jim Lehrer, who will steer the debate for tens of millions of viewers at home, has leeway under rules thrashed out by the two campaigns to bring up other burning issues.

That means Obama, 51, could face a grilling on his administration's shifting account of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11.

Romney, 65, a multi-millionaire former venture capitalist, could come under scrutiny over his complex offshore tax arrangements, which Democrats have highlighted to press the case that he is indifferent to middle class struggles.

Romney badly needs to reset the narrative of the election, after a secretly filmed tape emerged of him branding 47 percent of Americans as “victims” who pay no taxes and depend on government for handouts.

Obama and Romney, who have rarely met or spoken, have spent days in seclusion honing debate techniques, offensive parries and comebacks.

Ohio Senator Rob Portman has been playing the role of Obama in Romney's shadow debates and Democratic Senator John Kerry, the defeated 2004 Democratic nominee, has been standing in for Romney.

Asked by reporters Tuesday if he was ready, Romney replied: “I'm getting there.”

Obama ignored reporters' questions about the debate as he ducked out of a plush Nevada resort to tour the Hoover dam.

Both sides have been indulging in the usual wild game of expectations setting, with Obama's team predicting Romney will fire off some pre-baked “zingers” at the president.

Republicans have praising Obama's debating skills to the skies, hoping that a stronger-than-expected Romney can emerge from the first showdown with the momentum to chew into the president's polling lead.

Several national polls released before the debate showed a tight race, with Obama ahead by a few points.

The new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll gave Obama a lead among likely voters of 49 percent to 46 percent, consistent with a RealClearPolitics poll average showing the graying U.S. leader up by 3.5 percent.

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