Headed into the first presidential debate, it was Republican nominee Mitt Romney who needed to overcome expectations to keep his presidential bid alive. Now, because of a stronger-than-expected outing, the tables have turned and it's President Barack Obama's re-election hopes that are on the line ahead of Tuesday's second debate at Hofstra University.
Obama needs to make up lost ground with swing voters, particularly women, if he is to revive his edge in the election and the town hall format might just play to his political strengths. The audience will be made up of undecided, registered voters who will pose questions to the candidates. The more relaxed format will allow the president to speak directly to individuals in the audience, rather than his opponent or a moderator, highlighting his ability to empathize with everyday Americans. Polls still show him far out-pacing Romney when it comes to "understanding" the problems of the middle class.
But Obama will also need to show some fight on the stage, akin to the bold and combative performance of Vice President Joe Biden against Romney's running mate Paul Ryan last week. Focus groups of undecided voters following the initial presidential bout said the president looked like he didn't even want to win re-election.
The burden on Romney is lighter, but he now faces greater expectations after his spirited performance in Denver. And just as the town hall will play to Obama's strengths, it will highlight what has long been considered Romney's greatest weakness – his inability to connect with voters. Romney is seen as stiff and awkward when he tries to make small talk on the campaign trail, though close family and friends say he's warm and humorous in more intimate settings.
One set of issues, not bridged during the first debate, is likely to emerge anyway, says Jennifer Lawless, director of American University's Women and Politics Institute.
"Even if the content of the question seems somewhat divorced from traditional women's issues, I wouldn't be surprised if Barack Obama tries to inject Romney's views regarding reproductive freedom, contraception, and pay equity," she says.
Romney has long trailed Obama with women voters, as most Republicans do compared to Democrats, and benefited from the lack of discussion of the issue of abortion in the first match-up. Instead, Romney won over undecided women by speaking to economic issues and promising to right the stalled economy.
Another opening exists for both men when it comes to older voters. According to a focus group of undecided seniors in Tampa, Fla., many still are unclear about how Romney or Obama's Medicare plans will affect them specifically, but it's their top concern.
"They really want to talk about it in terms of how it will affect them. It's a huge information vacuum in that regard," said John McLaughlin, a partner at McLaughlin and Associates, who interviewed the seniors as part of a project with the DC-based polling firm Resurgent Republic.
So while the first debate was mired in policy weeds, it's likely the candidate who can show how their policies will tangibly affect voters who could see a bump in support coming out of the second debate.
It also appears Romney could be forced by Obama to reconcile divergent positions he's taken on some issues throughout the course of his presidential campaign.
Romney staked out hard-line conservative positions during his pursuit of the Republican nomination, such as pushing for illegal immigrants to "self-deport" before seeking legal status, promising to repeal financial reform regulations as well as the president's entire health care law, and seeking to lower taxes across the board. That includes eliminating taxes on investments that favor the wealthiest, and saying he opposes the right to an abortion. But during the last debate, Romney portrayed himself as a centrist politician ready and willing to work in a bipartisan fashion in Washington, despite his earlier polarizing positions.
Voters still care very much about honesty and character, McLaughlin said. And the Obama campaign has already been promoting online advertisements with clips of Romney earlier in the campaign, asking voters who the "real" Romney is.
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.