WASHINGTON - Barack Obama faced a high-stakes task on Tuesday as he headed into a second prime-time debate against Mitt Romney: putting the brakes on his Republican rival's sudden momentum in a tense, tight race to the White House.
More than 67 million Americans tuned into the pair's opening faceoff almost two weeks ago in Denver. Tens of millions are expected to watch tonight's showdown to see if a more energized and engaged Obama can undo some of the damage from his listless Oct. 3 showing.
Obama has vowed to do better — and Democratic pundits say he must if he's to stop Romney from continuing to edge past him nationally and in some of the key battleground states that will decide the outcome of the Nov. 6 vote.
Women, in particular, were expected to be a key focal point of Tuesday's showdown in Hempstead, N.Y. Some recent polls have suggested Romney, who has espoused more moderate positions over the past two weeks, has all but erased Obama's advantage among women over the past 12 days.
Women have long been Obama's demographic shield against the Republican, and Democrats are particularly nervous about any suggestion he's losing female voters. The Obama campaign has raised questions about this week's USA Today/Gallup poll that suggested the president's lead among women had evaporated, calling it a flawed "outlier" that bears little resemblance to other swing state surveys.
Romney aides denied there would be any attempt by the Republican presidential hopeful to direct his message specifically to women during Tuesday's debate. Instead, he'll simply argue he's a better choice for all Americans on election day, now just three weeks away.
"Our internal polling shows strong movement toward Gov. Romney over the past two weeks," Rich Beeson, the campaign's political director, said Tuesday.
"It also shows serious movement by independent voters, women, and those who were soft supporters of President Obama toward the Romney-Ryan ticket."
The debate is a town-hall style event moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley. Audience members — uncommitted voters chosen by Gallup and debate officials — will put questions to both Obama and Romney on both foreign and domestic policy.
The president's re-election team says Obama is "calm and energized" as he heads into the debate.
With the race all but tied, the latest showdown could provide either candidate with the breakout moment they need as the clock winds down on the campaign.
But with early voting already in full force in 43 of 50 states — including key battlegrounds like Ohio and Iowa — both Obama and Romney are running out of time and opportunities to recover from any serious debate missteps.
Since the Denver debate, the Obama campaign has attacked Romney for his sudden shift to the centre of the political spectrum after he spent months wooing the ultra-conservatives among the Republican party base.
In a new Web video released Monday, the Obama campaign accused Romney of trying "to pull the wool over voters' eyes before Election Day."
Another spot features Bill Clinton dissecting Romney's tax proposals piece by piece, saying his approach "hasn't worked before and it won't work this time."
The Obama re-election campaign also sent out an email to supporters from Clinton himself, urging them to donate.
"No matter how much you support President Obama, no matter how much you support the smart policies he's proposing, keep this in mind: It won't amount to a hill of beans unless you dig deep and help him win this close race," Clinton says in the email.
The campaign's final debate is next Monday in Boca Raton, Fla. That bout is focused solely on foreign policy.
That's a touchy issue for Obama right now given the scandal surrounding his administration's handling of the crisis in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.