WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney face off in their second high-stakes debate Tuesday night at a crucial juncture in the presidential campaign with national polls showing the race deadlocked just three weeks before Election Day.
The pressure is on Obama who has vowed to put up more of a fight in an effort to overcome his lacklustre, momentum-stalling performance in the candidates' first debate on Oct. 3
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.
Obama still hangs 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.
The Tuesday debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, offers 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 so furiously courting. The town hall-style format makes it especially tricky for Obama to strike the right balance in coming on strong against Romney without turning off the audience — and tens of millions of television viewers — by going too negative.
The importance attached to this year's debates is reflected in the significant chunks of time that both candidates have spent preparing: Obama, faulted for being ill-prepared for the first faceoff with Romney, largely dropped out of sight for the last three days to attend "debate camp" at a resort in Williamsburg, Virginia. And Romney has devoted big blocks of time to rehearsals for the last several days as well.
The campaign juggernaut has raced ahead nonetheless. Both sides have unfurled new ads, hustled at the grassroots level to lock in every possible voter, dispatched surrogates to rev up enthusiasm and kept the 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 rivals shifts on that and other issues this time around. Clinton, who has been praised by Democrats for explaining Obama's economic arguments 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.
"Stick with this guy," one man urges.
Romney's running mate Paul Ryan played counterpoint, making the case in Ohio and Wisconsin that while Obama had inherited a tough economic situation, the president's policies had only made things worse.
After a dismal stretch where the unemployment rate remained above 8 per cent across Obama's term, the number fell to 7.8 per cent 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.
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.
In an in-your-face move, the Republicans parked their "Commit to Mitt Early Vote Express Tour Bus" in Williamsburg, where Obama was rehearsing for the debate, to encourage Virginians to cast early ballots for the Republican ticket.
First lady Michelle Obama counted herself among those who have already voted. Mrs. Obama dropped her Illinois absentee ballot in the mail on Monday to highlight the convenience of getting voting out of the way ahead of Election Day.
"Today! I voted for my husband. Yes!" she enthused before college students at a rally in Delaware, Ohio. "It felt so good."
The president plans to cast an in-person ballot in Chicago on Oct. 25 — making history as the first incumbent to vote early.
Obama issued a fundraising appeal via email Monday in which he told supporters: "Listen, this race is tied" and said the outcome would determine the country's future for decades.
"That's what I'll be fighting for up on that stage tomorrow night — but I can't do it alone," he added.
Romney's campaign released its latest fundraising report, showing the Republicans raised more than $170 million in September, slightly behind Obama's $181 million haul for the month.
There's been no letup in the pace of activity in the nine battleground states likely to decide the election. Ryan is holding rallies Tuesday in Virginia. Vice-President Joe Biden had to postpone a two-day campaign swing through Nevada to attend Tuesday's funeral for former Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. The two served together in the Senate for nearly two decades. Michelle Obama campaigns in North Carolina on Tuesday.
Romney is hoping to keep his momentum going with another solid debate performance Tuesday night.
"The debate was huge and we've seen our numbers move all across the country," the candidate's wife Ann Romney told Philadelphia radio station WPHT.
Now Obama is looking for the same kind of boost from a comeback performance.
"The president is his own harshest critic and he knows that Mitt Romney had a better debate," said campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki. She described the president as "calm and energized and just looking forward to getting to New York" for the debate.
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."
The candidates will engage in a final debate next Monday in Boca Raton, Florida, where the emphasis will be on U.S. foreign policy.
Associated Press Writers Steven R. Hurst and Nancy Benac in Washington and Julie Pace in Williamsburg, Virginia, contributed to this report.