Barack Obama faces the daunting task in the second presidential debate Tuesday of lifting the shadow left hanging over his campaign by his lackluster, momentum-stalling performance in the first face-off with Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Much as Obama needs to erase the memory of the first debate nearly two weeks ago, Romney will likewise need to turn in a repeat of his strong showing in the initial face-to-face-confrontation, a performance which propelled him into a virtual tie in nationwide polling.
With their debate falling exactly three weeks before the Nov. 6 election, Obama will be fighting to hang on to small leads in many of the nine key swing states that likely will determine which man occupies the White House on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. The so-called battleground states — those that do not reliably vote either Republican or Democratic — take on outsized importance in the U.S. system where the president is chosen not by the nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests.
Beyond that, the debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York is seen as offering both candidates their best chance for a breakout moment with time running out in what promises to be one of the closest presidential contests in recent U.S. history.
The candidates will take questions on domestic and foreign policy from an audience of about 80 of the coveted uncommitted voters whom both campaigns are courting furiously. The town hall-style format makes it especially tricky for Obama to strike the right balance in coming on strong against Romney without appearing too negative to the audience and the tens of millions of Americans who will be watching on television..
In the first debate, Obama seemed caught unawares and unprepared to respond to Romney's sudden shift to more moderate positions from the hardline policies he had advocated during the fight for the Republican nomination. In a new Web video released Monday, the Obama campaign said Romney had not undergone an October conversion to more middle-of-the-road positions but was trying "to pull the wool over voters' eyes before Election Day."
While the candidates were closeted with advisers preparing for this debate, their campaign machinery continued to grind on. Both sides released new ads, pushed at the grassroots level to lock in every possible voter, dispatched surrogates to rev up enthusiasm and kept running mates busy raising cash and campaigning in the most hotly contested states.
Obama's campaign turned to former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday to make the case against what it says is Romney's $5 trillion tax cut. Clinton appears in a Web video for the campaign, picking apart Romney's tax plan piece by piece, saying his approach "hasn't worked before and it won't work this time."
The president's campaign says Romney hid from his tax proposal during the first debate, and pledged Obama would be more aggressive in calling out his rival's shifts on that and other issues this time around. Clinton, who has been praised by Democrats for explaining Obama's economic arguments — often more clearly than the president himself, appeared to be laying the groundwork in the video released hours before the secondface-off.
Obama's campaign, buoyed by recent encouraging news, also released a new battleground state ad Monday in which ordinary Americans talk about signs of economic progress.
During a campaign swing through Virginia on Tuesday, Ryan said in a radio interview that Romney supporters who are working to get out the vote for the Republican ticket "have been just really doing the Lord's work all throughout the state."
"We're doing it for our country," Ryan said. "We're doing it for each other."
Romney picked up the backing of former independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. "We can't afford four more years in which debt mushrooms out of control, our government grows and our military is weakened," Perot wrote in an editorial announcing his endorsement Tuesday in Iowa's Des Moines Register.
After a dismal stretch where the unemployment rate remained above 8 percent across Obama's term, the number fell to 7.8 percent in the latest report for September. That is coupled with an improving housing market, increasing consumer confidence and growing numbers of Americans who tell polling organizations that they believe the United States is headed in the right direction.
While the Obama campaign acknowledges there is a good distance still to travel in the recovery from the Great Recession and near financial meltdown in the final months of the George W. Bush presidency, the president now has some positive economic news with which to counter Romney's insistence that he is the stronger candidate, given his long history in the world of private equity.
With early voting already under way in dozens of states, including such battlegrounds as Ohio and Iowa, the candidates will have little time to recover from any missteps in the debate. Through Monday, either absentee or in-person early voting had begun in 43 of the 50 states.
Mrs. Obama campaigns in North Carolina on Tuesday before heading to New York to watch the debate. She told NBC in an interview aired Tuesday that she's always "primed" as she sits in the audience, in case her husband looks at her for encouragement.
"I'm perched, I'm looking at him, I'm smiling, I'm giving a thumbs up if he can see it — with the lights you just never can tell," she said. "I assume that he can so I make sure that I'm always giving him that positive love."