HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney face off Tuesday in a “town hall” style debate that has the potential to finally break the race’s stubborn tie as their battle roars into its final, decisive three weeks.
The 90-minute debate at Hofstra University, which begins at 9 p.m. EDT, comes with the two men neck and neck after Romney bested Obama in their first debate, gained in the polls and climbed back into contention. The result could hinge on the way the two men perform, but also on a format that will allow members of the audience to pose questions, with follow-ups from moderator Candy Crowley of CNN.
Obama, sharply criticized for a listless performance in the first presidential debate on Oct. 3, is expected to more aggressively question Romney’s shifts in tone and position over the years – and in some cases recent days – on tax cuts, immigration, abortion and other subjects.
“We saw this clearly in the first presidential debate on Oct. 3, as Governor Romney cynically and dishonestly hid the self-described ‘severely conservative’ positions he’s been running on – and there’s no doubt he’s memorizing more deceptions as he prepares for Tuesday’s second debate,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a memo Monday.
Obama, who has been practicing in Williamsburg, Va., is expected to press Romney hard on the Republican’s contention that he can cut current income tax rates 20 percent across the board without increasing the federal deficit.
Romney, who has been preparing in the Boston area, is expected to counter not only with a vigorous defense of his plan but with a recitation of economic woes that he says the Obama administration has helped exacerbate. The more informal town hall format is likely to be more comfortable for the affable Romney.
Campaigning in Ohio, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan previewed a likely line of attack for Tuesday, ripping the president on unemployment, budget deficits and long-term problems in Medicare.
"We have a president that came in with so much promise. He came in with so much hope," Ryan said. "Unfortunately, what we've got now is a string of broken promises."
Crowley will moderate, the first time in 20 years a woman has had that role. Undecided voters in the audience, selected by the Gallup Organization, will ask questions, a format first used in 1992 as a way to more directly engage voters.
Crowley stirred grumbling in both political camps by suggesting she may go further in her own questioning than the campaigns want. She also plans to press the candidates to actually answer the questions asked of them.
“Either go to the next question or say, ‘Wait a second, wait a second, they asked oranges, you responded apples, could you please respond to oranges?’” Crowley told McClatchy in an interview. “Or, ‘Hey, while we’re on this, could you please explain why this happened or what do you think about this?’”
Asked about the kerfuffle around Crowley and follow-up questions, Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted there were "discussions around every debate,” but she declined to comment on the specifics.
"The president is looking forward to the debate tomorrow night, looking forward to answering questions from the American people who will be in the audience, and he is prepared for and ready to take questions from wherever they come," she said.
The Romney campaign would not comment about follow-up questions.
Asked if the campaign prefers no follow-up questions from Crowley, Psaki said: “I’m not going to get into any more specifics than that.”
Despite losing his lead after the first debate, Obama has some history on his side. Incumbent presidents, notably Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush 20 years later, lapsed in their first debates. Like Obama, they’d grown used to deference even opponents show to the president of the United States, and they seemed taken aback at the kind of onslaught they hadn’t endured since their last campaigns four years earlier.
Reagan and Bush recovered in their second debates and went on to win their re-election bids. But they were running when the economy was thriving, and Obama is not. Obama’s fate is more difficult to handicap, as he’s being tugged by two conflicting historical forces – the sluggish recovery has kept his popularity down, but it’s not dismal enough to make him an underdog.
Both candidates face new challenges Tuesday. Republicans sense this is their first big chance to question Obama’s national security policy, a topic that didn’t come up in the first debate.
For Obama, it could be Libya. His administration stumbled in explaining circumstances surrounding the death of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, in an assault on the U.S. consulate in Libya last month.
Vice President Joe Biden added to the controversy, saying during his debate last week with challenger Paul Ryan that the White House was unaware embassy officials wanted more security. That seemed to contradict congressional testimony earlier in the week, when a State Department official told Congress that she had received requests for more security in Benghazi but that she turned them down because the department wanted to train Libyans to handle the duties.
For Romney, it could be his claim that he’ll be able to cut tax rates enough to stimulate growth but also able to limit unidentified deductions so that the wealthy end up paying the same amount of taxes.
Independent analysts have been skeptical of the claim. Congress’ bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation staff reported Friday that even eliminating most tax breaks would only support a 4 percent reduction in rates. The Romney campaign called the finding “irrelevant,” saying it did not account for the growth that rate reductions would spur.
Obama also has another tricky task: He has to make a fresh appeal to the small slice of undecided voters who could decide the election. They usually have doubts about the incumbent but are getting to know the opponents. They need time to assess whether they can envision Romney as president.
"It’s harder for an incumbent to recapture votes from people who have jumped off his ship. Those people have begun to say, OK, I’m comfortable with Romney," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducts surveys in several states.