HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Democrats and Republicans streamed through the media center at Hofstra University all afternoon Tuesday to try to set expectations for a debate both sides see as coming at a crucial moment in the campaign.

Democrats were particularly aggressive with the pre-wash cycle— a departure from two weeks ago, when advisers trickled into the spin room of the first debate in Denver long after their GOP counterparts, looking shaken by President Obama’s lackluster performance

On Tuesday, in contrast, nearly a dozen Obama advisers marched through the media center hours before the debate began and often after their handlers had gotten the word out that they were coming. Most of them came armed with specific, well-rehearsed messages.

One thing was clear from all of them: Obama needs a good night, and if he presents a stark contrast with Republican Mitt Romney’s more conservative positions, it will be a good night for him. Several in particular said they expected the president to focus on issues important to women voters by highlighting Romney’s opposition to abortion, to the Affordable Care Act and his promise to defund Planned Parenthood. It was an acknowledgement of recent polls showing that Obama's support among women has eroded — and a reflection of Democrats’ belief that highlighting Romney’s statements on these issues will reverse that trend.

For U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the message was Mitt Romney’s “flim-flam-ist artistry” in trying to cast his record as Massachusetts governor as moderate and bi-partisan. (Kerry appeared in the spin room just as an email arrived in reporters’ inboxes from the Obama campaign decrying Romney’s “revisionist” history of his gubernatorial record).

Explore the 2012 electoral map and view historical results and demographics

“Mitt Romney has spent a lot of time trying to pretend that he had a great record in the state of Massachusetts,” said Kerry, who has played the role of Romney in debate preparations with Obama, including a three-day session in Williamsburg that ended Tuesday. “Let me just tell you: I’ve spent months now studying Mitt Romney’s record. I know everything about it -- more than I ever imagined or might have wanted to -- and I will tell you that the numbers don’t add up, the record’s not real. This is one of the great charades of all time, in my judgment.”

For campaign manager Jim Messina, it was that “facts matter” — that Romney “walked away” from his positions on tax cuts, the Affordable Care Act and women’s health issues, and that voters will get a clearer sense Tuesday of the differences between the two candidates.

“What I hope is that we get out the clear differences, and if we do that, we will have had a good night,” Messina said. “The president was honest that he didn’t have as good of a debate as he had hoped. You’re going to hear the president lay out a strong argument.”

Other pre-debate spinners on the Democratic side included Obama’s deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, press secretary Jennifer Psaki, adviser Robert Gibbs, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Vermont governor Howard Dean.

Plenty of Republicans roamed the media center too, including Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. But there was less urgency to their push before the debate, and Sean Spicer, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, explained why: “They have to. We don’t. We’re winning.”