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The campaign picked the riverfront Virginia resort in part to get the president away from distractions at the White House. Some of Obama’s official duties, including the attack in Libya that led to the death of four Americans, forced the president to cancel or cut short some of his prep sessions ahead of the first debate, and aides acknowledge he entered the first faceoff with less practice than they had wanted.
Virginia was also a political strategic pick for Obama. While he has no formal public events there, his mere presence in the competitive swing state is designed to drive local media coverage just over three weeks from Election Day.
Aides said Obama and his team were both studying up on policy and holding mock debates, featuring Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., playing the role of Romney. Anita Dunn, a former Obama aide brought back to help with debate preparations, was playing the role of debate moderator Candy Crowley, the veteran CNN reporter.
For Obama, the challenge is to be more aggressive in combating his Republican rival during the town hall-style debate, which often requires candidates to also show empathy with the questioner.
Campaign officials insisted they were more focused on substance over style.
"The question is not just which candidate connects with the questioner, but who has the better policies for the American people for the next four years," Psaki said. "On that front the president has a great advantage."
But Romney’s team claimed the advantage Sunday, citing polls that suggest the race is essentially a tossup.
After attending church services Sunday morning, the Republican candidate devoted several hours to debate practice at a hotel near his suburban Boston home. Romney, who has been setting aside time for debate practice since June, was joined by his senior strategy team, including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who has been playing Obama.
"I think the wind is at Gov. Romney’s back and we’re clearly on momentum," Gillespie said. "This is going to be a close race. I knew that when we were behind in the polls. I know it now when we’re ahead in the polls."
Gillespie made his comments on "Fox News Sunday"; Gibbs appeared on CNN’s "State of the Union."
Pace reported from Williamsburg, Va. Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
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