The pressure tonight is all on Barack Obama. His abysmal performance two weeks ago completely changed the nature of the campaign and he has to get the train back on track tonight, or he can curl up in the caboose and get some rest for the next three weeks.
Unlike the first debate, this is a "town hall" format in which members of the audience will ask questions. This will not like a town hall at your Rotary Club between two city council candidates where anyone can stand up and ask a question.
The audience - or at least those whose questions will be considered - has been picked by the Gallup organization to be likely voters who remain undecided in this election.
We have been told for six months that this race is frozen in place and the number of "undecided" voters is a tiny sliver of the electorate, but - as noted above - Obama has gone from +4.3 to about - 0.5 in just 13 days so apparently the electorate has thawed.
In a poll that has received remarkably little coverage this morning, the Daily Kos - the ultra-Liberal website, in conjunction with the SEIU conducted a poll showing Romney has burst out to a four percentage point lead 50% - 46%.
At first I thought it was a joke.
But, you can read it for yourself HERE
CNN's Candy Crowley - whom I greatly admire - is the moderator and will pre-select the questions to be asked during the 90 minute program.
In spite of a previously secret memorandum of understanding signed by the two campaigns in advance of the debate season that forbids it, Crowley has said publically that if one or both of the candidates dodges a question or fudges an answer she will intercede and ask for a clarification and/or correction.
This has led to both campaigns demanding she abide by the terms of their agreement - an agreement to which she was never a party. Nevertheless, it will be difficult for either candidate to refuse to respond to a query or comment by Crowley.
Because of the Denver debate, the bar for Obama is significantly higher tonight. Beating his sleep-walk shouldn't be difficult and (assuming he does) the Obama team will be out in force claiming a tide-changing performance tonight. Anything short of actually snoring while waiting his turn will be proclaimed, by the comedy team of Cutter & Axelrod, "a victory of historic proportions."
Obama needs to do well enough to stop the tide - especially among women - that has been flooding toward Romney, but he can't look desperate - no matter how desperate he might be.
The convention wisdom is (a) there will be fewer than the 68 million who watched the first debate and (b) the town hall format doesn't lend itself to the direct confrontation we saw in the first debate. I'm not sure I believe either.
Romney has the advantage of having proven he can compete with - and defeat - Obama in a head-to-head match-up. He doesn't have to repeat his overwhelming victory in Denver, but neither can he look like he's settling for a tie.
Romney has to demonstrate the same aura of confidence and competence he showed two weeks ago, without stretching over the line toward arrogance which would only feed The-Rich-Guy-Doesn't-Care-About-You story on which the Obamas have spent nearly a half billion dollars pushing. I'll have my post-game analysis immediately following the debate.
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