SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — When President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, meet at Hofstra University Tuesday night, the tension will be ratcheted to the breaking point.
Last time, with Obama surging ahead in all the polls, pundits were dolefully forecasting a complete collapse of the Romney candidacy should he put in a poor performance. Now, just two weeks later, it is Obama who is facing a make or break moment.
On the eve of the Denver debate, campaign surrogates for both candidates tried to downplay expectations. Only Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, bucked the trend. He confidently predicted that it would turn the campaign on its head.
“I'm telling you, Thursday morning, you're all going to be scratching your heads and saying, 'Wow, we have a barn-burner now for the next 33 days.' "
He was right; Romney was unexpectedly strong, Obama astoundingly lethargic, and the dynamic of the race changed dramatically in the course of 90 minutes. Now it is Romney who is riding a wave of positive polls and great expectations. The two men might be virtually tied, but it is Romney who, at least for now, seems to have the all-important “Big Mo” — momentum.
Obama took a beating from pundits of all stripes after the last debate. His listless, passive performance had even normally friendly comedians getting belly laughs at his expense.
Jon Stewart, Emmy-winning host of the “Daily Show,” was scathing in his critique:
“Obama unveils his October surprise … he’s given up!” said Stewart last week, to nervous titters from the audience.
The New Yorker, hardly a bastion of conservatism, responded with a cover showing Romney debating an empty podium — a sly reference to Clint Eastwood’s puzzling appearance at the Republican National Convention, in which he held a rambling conversation with an empty chair representing the president.
So a lot is riding on tonight’s debate, which will feature a town hall format with both domestic and foreign topics being discussed.
The debate will be hosted by CNN’s Candy Crowley, who has been prepping extensively for the event. Even here there is controversy: The two campaigns had agreed that the moderator would play a limited role, simply funneling the questions from the audience, not following up or otherwise challenging the candidates.
But this does not seem to be Crowley’s understanding. In numerous interviews over the weekend she made clear that she intends to hold the candidates’ feet to the fire when necessary, keeping them on topic and not allowing them to skate over an issue or otherwise avoid answering the question asked.
Many observers predict that the town hall format of the debate will favor the president. Obama is seen as much more of a “people person” than Romney, who can appear stiff and stilted in unscripted exchanges.
But it will not give Obama the chance to display the fire and verve of earlier years, which seems to be what his base needs from him right now.
During the vice presidential debates last week, Joe Biden came out swinging, perhaps overdoing things a bit in his bid to show that the Democrats had lost none of their aggressive energy. It was a take-no-prisoners performance, and many people loved it.
Romney needs to capitalize on his earlier success. He has adopted a new, moderate tone, abandoning many of the “severely conservative” positions that got him the nomination in the first place. The far-right Republican base does not really have anywhere else to go. Most indicators suggest they are so opposed to Obama that they will vote for Romney no matter what. So the Republican challenger is courting the centrists and undecided voters, who might be scared off by some of his more extreme positions.
Both men have been preparing intensively for tonight’s debate, taking time off from the campaign to hone their skills.
The president has been in Williamsburg, Virginia, and, according to media reports, taking debate drills much more seriously this time around. He is working with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who played the role of Romney in Obama’s previous debate prep sessions as well.
The Obama campaign has indicated that the president will adopt a more assertive tone, and not allow Romney to get away with another “magical and theatrical” performance.
Chris Christie was right: We have a real barn-burner here.
Watch a live stream of the debate here: