By Amie Parnes and Justin Sink - 10/16/12 08:27 PM EDT
President Obama and Mitt Romney face a tipping point with Tuesday night’s second debate.
Both sides believe the showdown could be a decisive moment, particularly after a lackluster performance by Obama in the first debate was panned by his staunchest supporters and swung momentum solidly in Romney’s favor.
The change in the polls has raised the pressure on Obama, who needs a solid showing in the town-hall-style debate hosted by New York’s Hofstra University to reassure his supporters and stop an erosion in national and swing-state polls.
Obama and his team projected confidence Tuesday, and made little effort to lower expectations.
Debate partner Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) flashed a thumbs-up sign to reporters after he was asked how the president would fare, while top adviser Robert Gibbs told MSNBC's “Morning Joe” that Obama would deliver an “exceptionally strong debate performance.”
While momentum is with Romney, the GOP nominee still faces a tall order in defeating Obama in a run of swing states where the race has tightened. Obama still holds a lead.
Romney’s campaign hopes its candidate can press Obama Tuesday night on debts and deficits in advance of a national advertising strategy and a policy speech planned for Friday.
If Obama is under pressure, expectations are also high for Romney.
It is Obama who is now seen as the underdog, something that can play into voter and media interpretations of who had the better night on the debate stage.
Adding to the pressure on Tuesday night is the kerfuffle surrounding CNN’s Candy Crowley, the debate moderator.
She insisted Tuesday that she would ask follow-up questions and press candidates despite an agreement signed by the candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates the prohibits her from doing so. Moderators in the past have been allowed to ask follow-up questions.
Despite reports that both campaigns have voiced concerns over Crowley's statements that she would defy the rules, neither was willing to publicly voice objections before the debate.
“I will say that the President is looking forward to the debate tomorrow night, looking forward to answering questions from the American people who will be in the audience,” said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “But he’s prepared for and ready to take questions from wherever they come.”
Obama described preparations before his first debate against Romney as “a drag,” but there are signs he’s taking the second showdown seriously.
The president has spent the better part of three days in Virginia holed up in debate prep. On Tuesday, Obama had a 45-minute review with his advisers, before doing a walk-through of the debate site at the university.
He was to spend the afternoon doing some last-minute debate preparations with his staff before relaxing with his longtime friends Marty Nesbitt and Mike Ramos. In the evening, Obama was expected to join the first lady for a dinner of steak and potatoes before the main event.
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, ate with his sons and wife at his hotel near the debate site. The Republican nominee decided on rotisserie chicken and a baked potato, according to an aide.
Team Obama has promised that the president will more thoroughly challenge Romney's policy positions in the town-hall contest involving around 90 undecided voters, who will ask the candidates questions.
“I think you'll see someone who'll be strong, who'll be passionate, who'll be energetic — will talk about ... not just the last four years but what the agenda is for the future and how we continue to move our country and economy forward, strengthening it for the middle class,” Gibbs said Tuesday morning. “I think that's what you'll hear tonight from the president.”
Both sides highlighted likely avenues of attack ahead of the debate.
The Obama campaign said it wanted the president to press Romney to back up the math behind his proposal to lower individual tax rates by 20 percent.
In the hours before the debate, Obama’s campaign released a new Web video featuring former President Clinton challenging Romney’s assertions.
“In the debate Gov. Romney said that he wasn't really going to cut taxes on upper-income people, he only wanted to cut taxes on middle-class people. That's not true,” says Clinton in the video.
The Romney campaign highlighted the bankruptcy filing of A123 Systems, a stimulus-backed manufacturer of electric car batteries that had been heralded by the president.
“A123’s bankruptcy is yet another failure for the President’s disastrous strategy of gambling away billions of taxpayer dollars on a strategy of government-led growth that simply does not work,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
And in an appearance Tuesday morning on Fox News, Amb. William Richardson, a top foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, said the Republican nominee would call on Obama to “man up” and “accept his responsibility” for the terrorist attack on the American diplomatic mission in Libya.
While the pressure might be on for Obama on Tuesday night, his team is also looking to present a stronger front in the after-debate spin room, bringing in top-level surrogates like Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.), and Kerry.
Team Romney has been aggressive in flooding the spin room after each of the first two debates, and it has paid some dividends.
In the aftermath of the first presidential debate, where the Obama campaign had only brought a handful of top-level staff members and a few Democratic elected officials, the disparity between the two campaigns' efforts seemed to amplify Democratic angst over the president's performance.
This post was updated at 6:43 p.m.