Workers prepare the stage at the University of Denver for the first presidential… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
DENVER — As President Obama and Mitt Romney prepare to face off Wednesday evening, their wives each played the role of political spouse perfectly, declining to offer the mildest critiques of their husbands’ debating skills and speaking of their nerves as they watch their husbands in their first face-to-face contest.
“I get so nervous at these debates and, you know, I'm like one of those parents watching their kid on the balance beam. You're just -- just standing there just trying not to, you know, have any expression at all,” First Lady Michelle Obama told CNN in an interview aired Tuesday.
Ann Romney said her role is to be, as their five children have deemed her, the Mitt stabilizer.
DEBATE QUIZ: Who said it?
“I feel like that's my role for Mitt, especially when he's going through such a difficult time. I'm there for him. We're there for each other emotionally all the time,” she told CNN. “In the last 20 debates that we did in the primary, I felt that was my most important role.”
The first presidential debate in the general election, taking place at the University of Denver, is a critical moment in the race for the White House. Romney’s campaign has been flailing, and some view the meeting that will be viewed by tens of millions of Americans as his best chance to right the ship.
And for Obama, he is widely perceived as an expert debater, setting high expectations that could give an advantage to Romney, a skilled debater in his own right. Both men have weaknesses that their opponent will try to exploit -- the president’s answers tend to drone on, while Romney sometimes fails to connect to voters. Obama can be thin-skinned and quick to react tartly, while Romney can be peevish and overly focused on debate rules such as time limitations.
Michelle Obama, asked what sort of advice she gives the president, she said he doesn’t need much, although she allowed that he has “got to do his best.”
“He knows the job. He's been doing it for quite some time. He's a very good debater,” Michelle Obama said. “So I do tell him to have fun and relax and just be himself, because the truth is, if he's the Barack Obama the country has come to know and trust, he is going to do a great job.”
Ann Romney said her husband looks for her in the audience as a touchstone, as though to make sure he did well.
“Almost after every answer that he gives, he'll find me in the audience to see, was that good, was that OK?” she said. And she responds, “Good. Good.”
Asked what happens if she didn’t like the answer, Ann Romney laughed and said she doesn’t convey disappointment.
“I don't do any of that,” she said.
Ann Romney also recounted the debate ritual Romney performs each time he takes the stage -- finds her in the audience, places his watch on the lectern, and writes “Dad” on a piece of paper, in honor of his late father George Romney, who was governor of Michigan.
“And that's amazing, because he loves his dad, respects his dad, doesn't want to do anything that would not make his father proud,” Ann Romney said. “And just a reminder that yes, I'm here, but, Dad, I love and respect who you are, what you've taught me, what kind of a person you are, and I'm going to honor that. And so I love the fact that Mitt does that.”
The first presidential debate begins at 6 p.m. Pacific time Wednesday and lasts for 90 minutes. All major networks will televise it.