The pundits have labeled this week as the most important of the 2012 election.
It will live up to the hype when President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney meet for the second presidential debate in a town hall format tonight at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y. That means voters who haven't made up their minds will be asking the questions and Romney and Obama will be free to interact with them rather than be tethered to their podiums. How they interact with the audience will be just as important as how they deal with each other.
Obama needs to come back from a listless performance during the first debate in Denver -- the best thing he has going for him are low expectations. The expectations are higher for Romney, who needs to match his previous showing without having the benefit of surprising the media and viewers.
Below, POLITICO's five things to watch tonight:
1. Oh yes, it's ladies night.
Romney's post-debate gains have been attributed to inroads among previously uncommitted working-class and single women, key demographics in battleground states.
Obama's pollsters chalk up the shift to a consolidation of GOP-leaning independents rather than erosion of support for Obama. But women voters are the key to a second term for the president. Obama's team dismissed as not credible a USA Today/Gallup swing-state survey released Monday showing Romney and Obama tied with women voters.
Nonetheless, expect Obama to talk about women's issues whenever the opportunity presents itself at Hofstra, especially the pragmatic kitchen-table kind that helped propel pre-debate Obama to a commanding lead among middle-class voters.
But Obama's attack will also be more explicitly gender-based: The president will look for an opportunity to talk about social issues, especially Romney's flip from pro-abortion rights as a gubernatorial candidate to anti-abortion as Massachusetts governor -- and the GOP nominee's opposition to Planned Parenthood, top Democrats say.
That's where Obama's campaign has been concentrating its money since the Denver debacle, releasing an ad last Friday slamming Romney on social issues that will run in a half-dozen battleground states.
That dovetails with an intensifying effort to nationalize Missouri Senate hopeful Todd Akin's infamous rape comments. "We have Republicans trying to redefine rape," actress Scarlett Johansson said in a MoveOn.org ad produced by Obama supporter Rob Reiner.
Obama's people were stunned -- and delighted -- by Paul Ryan's extended attack on abortion during the latter part of last week's vice presidential debate, an eloquent but ultimately polarizing disquisition about the role religion has played in his views on abortion. It was largely lost in the clamor over Joe Biden's demeanor, but post-debate dial groups showed the exchange played very poorly with women.
But most of all, Team Obama intends to use Romney's own words against him, especially his claim, made to The Des Moines Register a week ago, that "there's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda."
When conservatives howled, Romney backtracked, giving Obama the chance to portray his opponent as a political opportunist who will sacrifice the interests of women for self-preservation, Democrats say.
2. For Romney, it's all about preparation.
The former Massachusetts governor has a few goals tonight, many of them based on the signals that Obama's camp has sent about its debate strategy.
Among them is this: clear through the clutter of attacks from Obama. Try to get under the president's skin without looking like that's what he's trying to do. Be ready to answer questions -- and criticisms -- about his comments on "47 percent," his personal taxes, his tenure at Bain Capital, something he avoided in Denver. Of the three, the last topic is the least likely to arise tonight as Obama may have difficulty painting Romney as a corporate raider without seeming anti-business in the town hall-style setting on Long Island.
But Romney is more than ready to respond to questions about the 47 percent of Americans who are "dependent" on government benefits at a secretly recorded fundraiser in May. In fact, the Republican was ready to respond at the Denver debate -- only Jim Lehrer never asked, and Obama never raised it. So instead, Romney gave a version of that response on Sean Hannity's Fox News show the next night.
On one hand, the remarks caused Romney some bleeding in the polls, but the last debate seems to have stabilized the race and helped the Republican with likability. And if Obama or an audience member raises the issue tonight, Romney has the chance to give a version of his apologia in prime time on national television with tens of millions of people watching.
To that end, Romney is likely to use more of the same centrist tone -- if not substance -- that he employed during the Denver face-off. It will be trickier on social issues for him to stick with a middle-of-the-road line, given the ground he's already carved out, while trying to avoid the flip-flopper label that he's steered clear of all year. But his advisers are betting that Obama will find it difficult to attack in a town-hall setting, giving Romney a bit of room to breathe.
It's not clear that Romney will seek to raise an issue -- Libya -- he has talked about increasingly on the campaign trail. After all, the candidates will face off again six days later in a debate focused solely on foreign policy. At the VP debate, Ryan didn't take an opportunity to poke holes in Joe Biden's comment about Benghazi, so it's unlikely Romney will let such a chance pass if it arises.
3. Obama will try to make this a referendum on Romney's character.
If Obama has one main mission, it's figuring out how to call Romney a liar to his face -- and make no mistake, the president thinks his opponent is a liar -- without making the country think it's Obama who's nasty, mendacious and desperate.
With two weeks of hindsight, Obama's team now agrees with critics who say his single greatest failing in Denver was allowing Romney to rewrite Obama's history as president and Romney's own as governor of Massachusetts, head of Bain and presidential candidate.
In Denver, Obama seemed almost resigned to the fact that Romney would provide relatively few details about his tax plan -- and seemed content to let surrogates carry the fight to Romney on the "47 percent" video or the call to release his tax returns.
At the moment of greatest vulnerability in 2012, the president adopted the tone of an annoyed teacher at a parent conference, projecting passive disappointment instead of active outrage. ("This seems to be a trend," a dejected Obama told moderator Jim Lehrer when grousing about the lack of specifics in Romney and Ryan's budget plans.)
Obama's team is counting on more fire this time around. ("Hey, he couldn't have any less" than in Denver, said one aide, hopefully). Expect Obama to challenge Romney on policy specifics, peppering him with questions and criticism. This was supposed to be the game plan heading into the first debate, but Obama simply didn't follow through, according to people in the president's camp.
But with one bad debate in the books, Obama needs to up the ante. He's got to press the case that Romney's shift to the center isn't election-year business as usual -- but the iceberg tip of a dangerous character flaw, a willingness to say or do anything.
That line of argument is a version of the "empty core" attack championed by Obama adviser David Axelrod in late 2011. That was later shelved, at the behest of Bill Clinton and others, as the campaign shifted to an attack on Romney's conservative stances in the GOP primaries.
The question is whether Obama has the stomach to go after Romney himself. So far, he's saved his toughest shots against Romney for stump speeches before adoring crowds -- or outsourced the character attacks to staff.
A day after the Denver debate, senior White House adviser David Plouffe used iterations of the words "lie" or "dishonest" a dozen times during a 10-minute gaggle with reporters on Air Force One. He concluded with the assertion that Romney's performance was "probably unprecedented in its dishonesty."
But the days of leaving the tough stuff to surrogates are over. Obama -- who still clings to the fraying notion he represents a newer, cleaner brand of politics -- now has no alternative but to make the hard case against Romney himself, and that risks damaging a good-guy brand he's spent a decade building.
4. For Romney, be the change agent.
Romney's two greatest successes in the last debate were his appeal to a political center and outlining a path forward.
Granted, Romney will need to come armed with a deeper explanation of his tax plan than "the president is not telling the truth," and one that goes beyond a headline.
He has a window to do two things: sell voters on why he wants to be president and show that he can connect on some personal level with the voters in the hall.
"Romney has to tell us why we can't continue on the same course, why more of the same is not the best we can do," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who advised Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. "A lot of this is already done but he needs to refresh and advance it. ... Romney has to explain he is that change. He has to inspire us, lift our eyes over the horizon and show us he can lead us to a better place. He can't do that with a 5-point or 59-point plan."
Above all else, this is a challenge Romney has struggled to meet. But it's a test that Obama also failed in the last debate, allowing Romney's likability ratings to improve, which is helping his overall poll numbers.
5. For Obama, don't overcompensate.
Figuring out the right balance between negative and positive -- knee-capping and inspiration -- will be a huge challenge tonight for Obama.
Even with the recent surge in Romney's personal approval ratings, Obama is still a fundamentally more likable and sympathetic candidate than Romney -- especially in a town hall format.
Many Democrats want to see demolition derby, but Obama's team is still very much in a brand protection mind-set. They are looking to adjust, not overhaul.
There was a reason Obama played it so soft against Romney in the first place: He's always done his best work at high altitude -- dealing political death, one aide told POLITICO, "is being perceived as just another politician."
So Obama isn't likely to be a lot tougher than he was in Denver, but a little less Incredible Hulk than the teeth-baring Biden of Danville.
"Denver's done. We've got to make adjustments without overcompensating," said an operative familiar with Obama's debate prep.
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