WASHINGTON - A feistier, flintier Barack Obama is apparently ready to come out swinging in Tuesday's prime-time debate with Mitt Romney, keen to make up for a disengaged performance two weeks ago that helped fuel his Republican rival's ascent in the polls.
"We know that the president is his own harshest critic and he knows that Mitt Romney had a better debate," Jen Psaki, Obama's travelling press secretary, said Monday at the posh Virginia resort where the president has been undergoing intense debate preparation.
Psaki, however, offered few specifics about how the president has been boning up for the high-stakes showdown, a town-hall style event that will feature questions from the audience. It's being held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.
"He's looking forward to answering questions from the American people tomorrow night.... He's calm and energized and just looking forward to getting to New York."
More than 67 million Americans tuned into the first debate on Oct. 3 in Denver.
An equally mammoth audience was expected to take in Tuesday night's showdown, moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley amid reported concerns from each campaign about the newswoman's stated intention to ask tough questions.
"Once the table is kind of set by the town-hall questioner, there is then time for me to say 'Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y, Z?'" Crowley said on CNN last week.
Those types of comments from Crowley have sounded alarm bells for both campaigns, Time magazine reported Monday.
Together, lawyers for both teams sent a memo to the Commission of Presidential Debates to express their concerns, hoping the moderator doesn't ask more questions than audience members.
Obama was being shielded by his campaign from those types of headaches on the eve of the Tuesday debate. Reporters were kept well away from the president on Monday as he crammed with members of his team, including Sen. John Kerry, standing in once again for Romney.
The president himself has said he's determined to do a much better job in debate No. 2.
His campaign wouldn't say whether officials are videotaping Obama so that he can pore over his reactions as part of his preparation, but Democratic insiders have said no stone is being left unturned during his latest stint at debate camp.
During Obama's first showdown with Romney, he frequently stared down at his notepad, sometimes grimly, sometimes with an indignant smile on his face. Romney, meantime, looked directly at Obama as he spoke, regarding the president with a serene expression.
In the aftermath of that debate, Romney closed the gap on Obama nationally — even surpassing him in some polls. He's also gained on Obama in several critical battleground states, and even edged past him in Florida.
In a fundraising appeal to supporters sent out Monday morning, Obama himself told voters that the race is now a dead heat and he's determined to come out swinging on Tuesday.
"Listen, this race is tied," Obama wrote in the email.
"What we do over the next 22 days will determine not just the next four years, but what this country looks like for decades to come. That's what I'll be fighting for up on that stage tomorrow night — but I can't do it alone."
The polls, however, continue to be confounding, suggesting Obama is holding onto a narrow lead nationally while struggling in the key swing states that will decide the outcome of the Nov. 6 election.
The PollTracker Average showed Obama leading Romney nationally by the slimmest of margins — 48.5 per cent to 47.2 per cent, a statistical tie. And a new Washington Post/ABC News survey, released on the eve of the Hempstead debate, has Obama back in the lead nationally, leading Romney 49 to 46 per cent.
And yet a USA Today/Gallup poll released later Monday showed Romney ahead of Obama by five percentage points in the country's top battleground states, with women fuelling his gains.
The survey of voters in 12 states found female voters heavily engaged in the election and increasingly voicing concerns about deficit and debt issues. Romney is now tied with Obama among women at 48-48, and ahead of the president among men by 12 percentage points.
Women, indeed, are expected to be a key focal point of Tuesday night's debate. Romney's wife, Ann, made a point of focusing on women in a radio interview in Philadelphia on Monday.
"The numbers don't lie and what the numbers tell us is that more women have been hurt by this economy than men, more women are unemployed, and more women have fallen into poverty in the last four years," she said. "We do hear their voices."
Her husband, meantime, was in Boston for his own debate camp, hoping to build on the momentum he's amassed after decisively besting Obama in Denver.
Romney's advisers have suggested the Republican will once again deliver a more moderate message to Americans on Tuesday night, despite spending months on the far right end of the political spectrum during the party's primary season.
Over the past two weeks, Romney has promised his tax proposals won't benefit the wealthy, has touted his experience working hand-in-hand with Democrats when he was Massachusetts governor and has denied any plans to pass tougher abortion laws if elected.
The Obama campaign, on the other hand, released an ad in a handful key swing states that features small business owners describing how their livelihoods have improved under the president as the U.S. economy shows signs of improvement.
"When you look at the president's plan I don't think there can be any question that we're on the right course for today's economy," says one supporter.
Adds another at the end of the spot: "Stick with this guy — he will move us forward."
Another ad, aimed at Ohio voters, features former astronaut John Glenn — a one-time Ohio senator — heralding Obama's character and economic record.