HEMPSTEAD, NY - America's two presidential candidates will go toe-to-toe in another high-stakes debate this evening; they'll debate for 90 minutes on the campus of Long Island's Hofstra University, beginning at 9pm ET. What can we expect to see tonight?
Mitt Romney - Still basking in the residual glow of his epic destruction of President Obama in Denver, expectations have been upped a bit for the GOP nominee. Supporters who are hoping for another dominant performance are likely kidding themselves. Mitt's showing in the first debate was literally historic, according to the polls -- it'll be impossible for him to replicate. Hell, it'll be tough for anyone to replicate in future presidential cycles. One concern Romney backers may have is tonight's format. The two nominees will be asked a series of questions from undecided voters in a "town hall" style meeting. If recent years are any guide, the candidates will each be provided a hand-held microphone and a stool, and will take turns responding to individual questions. Romney excelled in the 'two-podiums-direct-discussion' setting of the last debate, capitalizing on the ability to jot down notes and respond directly to his opponent while maintaining powerful eye contact. Tonight will be markedly different. He'll be fielding questions from average people and will therefore probably feel the need to address their concerns before he pivots to any broader messaging or criticisms of the president. The former governor isn't widely regarded for his personal warmth or ability to connect with average people, so this sort of set-up could put him at a disadvantage, both optically and substantively. On the other hand, because he's still seen by many as a stiff, impersonal plutocrat, if he's able to come across as even halfway normal and relatable, he could once again exceed expectations. Americans still anticipate an Obama win in this debate, albeit by a smaller margin. This dynamic could benefit the challenger. As I mentioned earlier, Romney had better be equipped to address "47 percent," the "war on women," and a host of divisive issues. Obama's not going to hold back this time.
Barack Obama - The president has a rather tough road to hoe this evening. Licking its wounds from the first debate, his team is promising a fiery, aggressive appearance tonight from Obama. The American people -- and especially the Democrats' base -- are expecting to see a more engaged and impassioned president, but Obama must be careful not to overcompensate for his sleepy Denver outing. As Bob Woodward said on Sunday, if Obama totally transforms himself, it'll be perceived as nervous showmanship. He has to thread the needle of being much more lively without going over the top. He also has to manage to take the fight to Romney without looking like a flailing loser. This may be especially difficult in the town hall format because the questions will be addressed to the candidates by average people. It's harder to take really hard shots at your opponent while you're talking to an undecided voter -- you risk looking mean and negative. Then again, if you basically ignore the initial question, then turn around and blast your opponent, you look unresponsive (and, again, negative). Obama needs to hit the sweet spot that Romney managed to nail on October 3rd: Relentlessly and aggressively on offense, while seeming pleasant, courteous, and in control. High wire act. The big question is whether Obama is able to juggle the his base's political bloodthirst without further diminishing his standing with other voters. According to a new Pew poll, more independent voters now identify the president's campaign as unduly critical toward his opponent, more so than the reverse. This is a danger zone for a guy whose personal likeablilty has kept him afloat for some time. (For what it's worth, that Pew poll has a fairly heavy D sample skew. Among the independents questioned, Paul Ryan won the Vice Presidential debate by double digits). Obama spent a lot more time in serious preparation for this round. It'll probably pay off to some extent, but pitfalls await, too. He's the more natural gabber (even if he has to fake it), so that likely helps him, as well.
Candy Crowley - Tonight's moderator has come under some fire over recent comments in which she suggested she planned to...ask follow-up questions. Gasp! The horror! Both campaigns have griped about this because her phraseology hinted that she might violate the carefully-crafted, agreed-upon rules, but that seems silly. Despite an occasional problematic remark, I happen to think that Candy Crowley is a very solid journalist. When I watch her work, I generally get the sense that she's really trying to be as even-handed as possible. We'll see how she does tonight, but I expect her facilitation of the discussion to be pretty good. The area where she can exert major influence is in the question selection process. She is personally screening and choosing which undecided voters will present which questions. That's a lot of power. I hope Crowley metes it out fairly and wisely.
The media - Our friends in the MSM have been jumping out of their skin to kick-start the "Obama Comeback" storyline. They've already tried, but actual events have been uncooperative. If Obama emerges tonight relatively unscathed, even in a tie, he will be declared the winner. "Under enormous pressure, Obama brings his A-game and rights the ship," etc, etc. Any mistakes or awkwardness by Romney will be magnified. Only another Romney win will tamp down the celebration, and it's tough to soundly defeat an incumbent president twice in a row. The Republican can't control, nor worry about, how the press will react. He can only go out there with clear eyes and a full heart and do his best.
Parting thoughts - (1) Democratic pollsters are begging Obama to offer a positive vision for the future. We're three weeks out from the election, and we've seen no semblance of a second-term agenda from this president. For him to whip something up at the last minute may seem desperate, plus it would detract from the overriding priority of attacking Mitt Romney. Good advice, but it comes very late in the game. Perhaps too late.
(2) Mitt Romney has a real opportunity to highlight the president's failures by simply quoting back candidate Obama's answers from the last town hall debate in 2008. During that session, Obama pledged to coordinate a "net spending cut" in federal spending during his first term, to create 5 million "green" jobs ("easily!"), and to reform Medicare and Social Security within four years. Strike one, strike two, strike three. If and when Obama fires up the promise machine tonight, Romney can essentially say, "how'd that work out last time, America?"
(3) Robert Gibbs certainly isn't lowering expectations for his candidate:
"Exceptionally strong." Maybe Gibbs agrees with Byron York; Obama needs a clear win.