WASHINGTON: 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.
Romney smiled broadly as he exited his plane in New York just hours before the debate.
"I feel fabulous," Obama told reporters with him in Williamsburg, Virginia, as he headed into a final meeting Tuesday to prepare with top aides.
Obama did not respond to a question about a more serious matter developing as he heads into the debate. Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton is taking responsibility for security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed last month. But Obama wouldn't say whether he agreed she was to blame.
Romney pressed the White House on the matter last week after Biden said in Wednesday's vice presidential debate that "we weren't told" about requests for extra security at the consulate. But State Department officials testified before Congress that they were aware of those requests. Clinton backed up the White House's assertion that the issue didn't rise to the president or vice president's attention.
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.
That has been especially true in Ohio.
Romney political director Rich Beeson laid down a marker that Romney would be victorious there, one of the most aggressively fought contests. "To be clear, the Romney-Ryan campaign will be victorious in the Buckeye State," Beeson wrote in a memo written along with the campaign's Ohio director, Scott Jennings, arguing several factors are working in Romney's favor there. No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, but Obama has been running strong in the state.
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 second face-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.
Romney's running mate Paul Ryan arrived at a Lynchburg, Virginia, rally in a pick-up truck with a large American flag flapping behind in the cab as AC/DC's "Rock 'N Roll Train" blared.
Ryan said the election "is about what kind of country we are going to be, what kind of people we are going to be. That's what this is about."
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.