Polls highlight challenge facing Romney
For Mr Romney, the debates represent his best chance to reverse voters' views of how he stacks up against Mr Obama by pressing his argument that Obama is a failure in managing the economy.
The debates also will give Mr Romney a chance to bolster his personal image, which has taken a beating in polls as Obama's team has cast him as an out-of-touch rich guy who, while leading Bain Capital, sent thousands of US jobs overseas.
Mr Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has been taking time off the campaign trail for weeks to prepare for the debates, which a campaign adviser acknowledged on Monday represent an "important opportunity."
"I think that focusing on the issues that people care about can make you more likable," Romney senior adviser Kevin Madden said.
"And people will come away from the debates saying, 'You know what, Governor Romney, he understands some of the problems I'm facing every single day and he's got solutions to help overcome the country's challenges. And as a result I feel better about my vote for him.’”
Mr Obama's rise in recent nationwide and state polls has been aided by what several polls have identified as increasing optimism about the direction of the country, even as the economy continues to struggle.
Reuters/Ipsos data shows Obama ahead of Romney 42 per cent to 38 per cent on the question of who would better lead the economy and 44 per cent to 39 per cent on who has the better plan to create jobs.
Mr Obama's campaign spent much of the summer and millions of dollars on ads that portrayed Mr Romney as unable to relate to the concerns of middle-class Americans and criticised his leadership at Bain Capital, which critics say plundered some of the companies it took over and cut jobs in the name of profits.
The Reuters/Ipsos polling of more than 1,600 likely voters indicates the tactics seemed to work.
On the question of which candidate has the right values, Obama leads 47 per cent to 37 per cent. On which candidate is tough enough for the job, Obama leads by 45 per cent to 38 per cent, and on the question of which candidate better represents America, Obama leads 48 per cent to 38 per cent.
"The White House has done the most effective job I've seen in negatively defining an opponent," said Peter Brown of the nonpartisan Quinnipiac University poll. "They have made Romney, in the eyes of many voters, a rich, unfeeling elitist who does not understand how Americans live their lives."