The stakes, as well as the level of uncertainty, surrounding their second encounter remained unusually high after a puzzling first debate performance by the president, a gifted speech maker who appeared flat-footed and defensive onstage with Romney nearly two weeks ago.
Since that evening in Denver, a race that had appeared to be Obama’s to lose has shifted in measurable ways toward Romney, as polls tighten nationally and in more than a half dozen states that will decide the election. Each candidate arrived in Hempstead, N.Y., about 25 miles east of New York City, with a different mission.
Obama, who has been preparing for several days in the relative seclusion of Williamsburg, Va., is looking to reassure an agitated Democratic base that he intends to defend his record and critique Romney’s policy proposals in a far more pointed way than he attempted to do in Denver.
“I feel fabulous,” Obama told reporters Tuesday morning before his departure from Williamsburg, a colonial-era town along the James River. “Look at this beautiful day.”
For Romney, another offensive-minded effort similar to his performance in Denver would help convince many of the voters who have given him a second look since then that his appeal is more than just the result of a bad night from the president.
Romney, who picked up deficit-hawk H. Ross Perot’s endorsement Tuesday, was sharp in the first debate. He unsettled the president, not least when he appeared to disavow his proposals for a broad tax cut should he win.
Obama said the former Massachusetts governor presented a false picture of his plans, but many swing voters in Ohio, Colorado, Florida and other key states have since moved Romney’s way.
Election 2012 blogger Rachel Weiner reported on the town hall debate’s format, which puts the voters Obama and Romney are trying to woo front and center, in contrast to the first debate:
There will be no opening (or closing) statements from President Obama and Mitt Romney; moderator Candy Crowley will introduce the candidates. Then town hall participants, undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization, will start asking questions. Romney gets the first question.
After each question, both candidates get two minutes to respond. Crowley will then ask a follow-up question. The candidates will have another two minutes total to discuss, but that time can be extended at Crowley’s discretion. The Presidential Debate Commission is hoping to get through 13 questions.
Both campaigns objected to Crowley’s intention to ask follow-up questions, having agreed themselves that she would not do so. But that agreement did not include Crowley or the commission.