Days before his first debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama hunkered down at a quiet Las Vegas resort to focus on last-minute preparations.
And, as early as a month before the Oct. 6 event at the University of Denver, Romney began his own practice sessions in rural Vermont, where Ohio Sen. Rob Portman got into character, mimicking Obama's fluid mannerisms and speaking style.
On a local level, there's less glitz and glamour -- and viewership -- surrounding debates for congressional and state candidates. For one thing, local candidates don't have a national commission putting debates together, so scheduling can be tough.
Before 8th Congressional District candidates Joe Walsh and Tammy Duckworth debated last week for the third time, they debated over how many debates to have.
Yet, hours of careful preparation are involved and -- in the age of cellphone camera journalism and YouTube uploads -- candidates must use the limited time and audiences' limited attention spans to succinctly get their points across, and ultimately, do no harm.
"I think you have to be dramatic, in order to get peoples' attention," said John McGovern, campaign spokesman for Republican Congressman Bob Dold, who is running against Democratic challenger Brad Schneider in the 10th Congressional District.
The candidates' first televised debate will air today on ABC 7.
A prelude to what's in store might have come at a videotaped meeting between the two candidates and the Daily Herald editorial board, where Dold, of Kenilworth, hammered away at his promise of "thoughtful, independent leadership."
Schneider, of Deerfield, focused on Dold's ties to the Republican party on key votes, including vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's budget plan.
Seeking to show where he bucked the party line, Dold sent a scroll of paper listing votes down the boardroom table, looking at the camera at key moments.
McGovern said Dold has "gotten agitated" over Schneider's strategies, and he has been focusing on "helping him refine his answers, and talk in sound bites."
That clarity is particularly important in a debate setting, Democratic strategist Eric Adelstein, who is working with the Schneider campaign on debate prep, agreed. "You can be as outraged as you want, but explain why you voted for these things."
In a televised debate, like the one today featuring Dold and Schneider, more "showbiz" comes into play.
"You're out there for the entire time," Adelstein said. "That's where some of the stylistic stuff, where do you put your hands, where do you look, comes in, in terms of training."
While debates often contain "gotcha" moments important to a candidate's success or failure, opportunities to spar before large crowds are few and far between.
In the 8th Congressional District, Hoffman Estates Democrat Duckworth and McHenry Republican Walsh debated Tuesday at the Meadows Club in Rolling Meadows in front of a raucous crowd of roughly 1,000 people.
Both campaigns were hesitant to give up details of their strategies for those events.
However, Duckworth's campaign employs a stand-in for Joe Walsh to help her practice responding to the congressman's often-theatric style.
Walsh, sources said, relies on some training he received in the mid-1980s in stage, theater and television at the Lee Strasburg Theatre and Film Institute in New York.
For state-level candidates, debates and forums can be an opportunity to get noticed as they compete for voters' attention in the face of the presidential campaign and high-profile suburban races for Congress.
Candidates for the Illinois General Assembly often don't have time to prepare at length for debates as much of their campaign strategies involve walking door-to-door in the districts they want to represent, taking their appeals directly to voters.
State Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat running for re-election in the 44th House District, said he tries to review what legislation he sponsored on a particular issue before heading into a forum or debate. For example, before Wednesday's debate in Elgin on schools issues, he made sure to plan his focus on education matters.
"I think people want to hear a little more nitty-gritty," Crespo said.
His opponent for Illinois House, Republican Ramiro Juarez of Streamwood, said he tries to be honest with the crowd when he doesn't know the "nitty-gritty" details the incumbent is privy to. Juarez is a teacher and says voters prefer a candidate be honest about an issue rather than just make something up to answer a question.
"I always think that speaking from the heart is the best," he said.
Prep: Some candidates focus more on door-to-door campaigns than on debates