Barack Obama faces the daunting task in today’s second presidential debate 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.
As 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.
With their debate falling exactly three weeks before the November 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, January 20. The so-called battleground states - those that do not reliably vote either Republican or Democratic - take on outsized importance in the US 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 US history.
Both candidates arrived at Hofstra well before the debate. Obama spent about 20 minutes inside the college's basketball arena to get familiar with the town hall-style setting that will feature questions on domestic and foreign policy from an audience of about 80 voters uncommitted to either candidate. Romney arrived an hour later for his own walk-through.
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 (local time) to make the case against what it says is Romney's US$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".
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."
This time, the candidates and the moderator won't be the only people in the ring when the 90-minute debate begins.
Q. Why is that?
A. Continuing a format that began 20 years ago, this is the "town hall" debate where people representing a cross-section of America get to ask the questions.
Q. Can people in the audience simply raise their hands and be called upon at random?
A. No. That's one thing that changed since the first presidential town hall debate in 1992, when questions and questioners weren't screened beforehand.
Q. So how does the screening work?
A. The Gallup polling organisation picks about 80 uncommitted voters. Those voters will work with moderator Candy Crowley of CNN, and she decides who in the group will get to ask a question. Crowley said she and a small team of helpers will try to get as broad a range of questions as possible and nobody else will know the questions in advance.
Q. How did Gallup choose the participants?
A. They were recruited as part of a random sample of all residents living in Nassau County, New York. Each resident contacted was asked a series of questions. Those who met the criteria as uncommitted voters were invited to participate.
Q. Will the candidates be seated?
A. They'll have chairs, but will spend most of their time as close as possible to the audience, walking around and looking directly at the questioner. Think of it as trying to connect with citizens who are there to represent millions of Americans watching on television.
Q. How will the audience be seated?
A. The group of 80 will be in three rows of circular risers facing the candidates, with an open space in the middle. Off camera, there will be a larger audience in the arena at Hofstra University in Hempstead on New York's Long Island.
Q. In the presidential and vice presidential debates so far, one candidate got the first question and the other candidate had the last word. Will that change Tuesday night?
A. Yes. There are no opening and closing statements. Romney gets the first question. Each candidate is supposed to have two minutes to respond, after which Crowley will facilitate a two-minute discussion. If the earlier debates are an indication, don't expect the candidates to stick to those strict time limits.
Q. Wasn't there an attempt to limit the moderator's role in this debate?
A. Yes. The two campaigns came to an understanding that Crowley's role should be limited, so that she wouldn't use the discussion period to introduce a new topic or rephrase a question.
Q. Will that affect the debate?
A. No. The campaigns left two crucial entities out of the agreement: Crowley and the Commission on Presidential Debates, which runs the debate programme. Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr, co-chairman of the commission, said: "I don't care what it says since we're not party to it."