First, President Obama was too cool. Then Vice President Biden was, by some accounts, too hot.
Can Obama get it just right?
At his second debate against Mitt Romney, the pressure is unquestionably on the president to recapture the momentum. The debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., comes as new polls continue to show Romney closing the gap in key battleground states in the wake of the candidates’ opening bout.
And the president’s team is making clear that Obama will have a more aggressive — and more prepared — approach this time.
“He’s excited for it,” campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “He’s calm and energized.”
Romney’s campaign has said little about how and whether the Republican nominee’s style might differ Tuesday night, compared with the opening debate, though a second clear-cut victory for the Republican challenger could be a game-changer. A senior Romney adviser said the campaign anticipates a “more aggressive” Obama.
“We expect he’ll launch one attack after another in an attempt to distract from his record and make up for his weak performance in Denver,” the adviser said.
Both campaigns are stacking the debate hall with surrogates, who will be in place to spin the performances and try to get their version to dominate media coverage going into Wednesday.
Romney’s campaign also announced a fresh endorsement Tuesday morning from Ross Perot, though the former presidential candidate is not on the surrogate list for the New York debate.
“We can’t afford four more years in which national debt mushrooms out of control, our government grows, and our military is weakened. Mitt has the background, experience, intelligence and integrity to turn things around,” Perot said in a statement.
New polls continued to underscore how the race has changed since the first debate. A Quinnipiac University poll showed Romney closing a 12-point gap in Pennsylvania to 4 points. The survey showed Obama leading 50-46 percent among likely voters.
A separate USA Today/Gallup poll showed Romney leading by 4 points across a dozen battlegrounds. Significantly, it showed Romney trailing by just 1 point among female likely voters — a group that for months has solidly backed the president.
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 key swing states that likely will determine which man occupies the White House on Inauguration Day.
Beyond that, the debate at Hofstra University 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.
Since the last debate, the Obama campaign has claimed Romney is trying to fool voters by espousing more moderate positions on the issues. 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.”
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.
Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan took on the challenge, asserting in Ohio and Wisconsin that Obama had inherited a tough economic situation but made things worse.
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.
First lady Michelle Obama mailed in her ballot Monday; the president plans to cast an in-person ballot in Chicago on Oct. 25 — making history as the first incumbent to vote early.
Tuesday’s debate audience of uncommitted voters was selected by Gallup, the polling organization. Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN will choose those who get to speak, after reviewing proposed questions to avoid repeats.
The final debate of the campaign will be Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., focusing on foreign policy.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.