Barack Obama vows to put up a fight Tuesday in his second debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, a promise the president will need to keep if he is to overcome his lackluster, momentum-stalling performance in the candidates' first debate two weeks ago.
Romney will likewise need to turn in a repeat of his strong showing in the initial face-to-face-competition, 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.
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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, falls exactly three weeks before Election Day in what promises to be one of the closest presidential contests in recent U.S. history. The Nov. 6 vote takes place against a backdrop of deep partisan divisions among Americans and near political deadlock in Congress.
The president's first act in this critical campaign week was to announce a new battleground state advertisement featuring voters discussing the ways their economic conditions have improved during his term. The ad was hitting the airwaves as Obama and Romney remained closeted with advisers in debate preparation.
The ad signaled Obama's intention to try to turn the tables on Romney by focusing in part on the economy during Tuesday's town hall-style meeting in which independent voters will pose questions to the candidates. The economy is the No. 1 issue for voters in this election, and one the Romney camp has long considered a weak point for the incumbent.
But after a dismal stretch where the unemployment rate has remained above 8 percent across Obama's term, the number fell to 7.8 percent 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.
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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. Through Monday, either absentee or in-person early voting had begun in 43 of the 50 states.
Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan spoke for Romney on Monday, lambasting Obama's failure to deal with the growing federal budget deficit during an appearance in his home state of Wisconsin. He pointed to a digital scoreboard that tracked the growth of the nation's debt in real-time.
"Look at how fast those numbers are running," Ryan said. "We know without a shred of doubt that we have consigned the next generation to this path of debt."
He touted Romney's plan to cut federal income tax rates by 20 percent across the board as the path back to economic growth. Obama contends such a deep reduction in the rate will benefit America's wealthy and harm the middle class by shredding social safety net programs.
The president and a team of advisers were preparing for the second confrontation with an intense, three-day "debate camp" at a golf resort in Virginia. Romney, who places a huge priority on the debates, was practicing Monday near his home in Massachusetts.
"The debate was huge and we've seen our numbers move all across the country," Romney's wife, Ann, said in an interview on Philadelphia radio station WPHT. She talked about the larger crowds her husband has been drawing in the aftermath of that first face-off. "That's what you call momentum," she said.
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 the Oct. 3 debate, Romney was looking hard to bring on board undecided voters by claiming his tax policy would not benefit the wealthy, promising to retain more popular provisions of Obama's health care reform that he has vowed to repeal, and emphasizing his bipartisan work with Democrats as Massachusetts governor.
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."
Romney likely will face stiff questioning from the town hall audience on his plans to cut social programs and so-called entitlements. He and Ryan have taken special aim at Medicare, the health insurance program for Americans over age 65, and Medicaid, which provides poor and low income Americans with health care and other benefits. They want to turn Medicare into a voucher system for Americans now 10 or more years away from retirement age and turn the Medicaid program over to the states, most of which already are struggling to balance their budgets as a result of the recession.
The candidates will engage in a final debate next Monday where the emphasis will be on U.S. foreign policy, an issue where polls show Obama maintains a comfortable lead, especially after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and devastating drone attacks on al-Qaida's leadership in Pakistan. Romney has countered by criticizing the Obama administration's response to the Sept. 11 attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.