HEMPSTEAD, New York, Oct 16 – Struggling Barack Obama and surging Mitt Romney face off on Tuesday in a make-or-break debate, vying for command of the presidential race just three weeks from election day.
Obama’s team promised a “strong” and “passionate” performance by the president in the second of three showdowns, while Romney’s campaign, believing the Democratic incumbent will come out swinging, predicted outright victory come November 6.
The rivals tangle at Hofstra University on Long Island in a 90-minute town hall-style debate from 9pm (0100 GMT Wednesday) with CNN’s Candy Crowley acting as moderator and questions coming from 80 undecided likely voters.
Romney’s nimble and confident first outing on October 3 in Denver, Colorado, combined with Obama’s disastrous showing, left the presidential contest in a dead heat, with some polls showing the Republican surging ahead.
Another poor display from Obama would significantly increase the chances that despite all the hope and promise of his election four years ago the nation’s first black leader is consigned to history as a one-term president.
Campaigns typically downplay expectations ahead of a debate, but a longtime Obama lieutenant predicted the president would come roaring back.
“I think you are going to see an exceptionally strong debate performance tonight from the president,” Robert Gibbs said on MSNBC.
“I think you will see somebody who will be strong, who will be passionate, who will be energetic.”
Senator John Kerry, who has been playing Romney in Obama’s debate prep, predicted the debate would be fun, saying the president was “excited about talking about his vision for the next four years.”
Kerry hinted Obama could dissect Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts, which he branded a “charade” and condemned Republicans for making an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi into a “political football.”
Obama emerged from his debate camp in Virginia to fly to New York and told reporters “I feel fabulous.”
He and Romney conducted walkthroughs of the debate site before each settled in to their final preparations.
Obama dined with his wife Michelle on steak and potatoes, while Romney ate a dinner of rotisserie chicken, with sides of spinach and baked potato, with his wife Ann and five sons.
Team Romney has had Obama on the ropes, and his campaign signaled confidence by predicting that the Republican would triumph in the key state of Ohio and nationwide.
“Our campaign clearly has the momentum heading into these last few weeks, as evidenced by steady movement in the polls toward governor Romney, and increased enthusiasm on the ground at our events,” senior aide Rich Beeson said.
Recent polls in the crucial Midwestern battleground state, which no Republican has lost and gone on to win the White House, show Romney steadily eroding the president’s narrow lead there.