* Obama gets another chance after weak first debate
* Polls show race deadlocked with three weeks left
* Town-hall format could change tone, strategy
By John Whitesides
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Oct 16 President Barack Obama's
camp promised that the American public would see a more
energized candidate on Tuesday night as Obama tries to keep
Republican challenger Mitt Romney at bay in a high-stakes debate
three weeks before Election Day.
Romney's campaign got a much-needed shot in the arm two
weeks ago when he came out swinging in the first matchup between
the two candidates, while Obama was widely criticized, including
by his own supporters, for his passive response.
The strong debate performance helped Romney reverse his
slide in the polls, and recent surveys put the race for the
White House at a virtual dead heat just three weeks ahead of the
Nov. 6 election.
Obama seems to have stemmed the bleeding though. In a
Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll on Tuesday, he gained a bit
more ground on Romney for the third straight day, leading 46
percent to 43 percent.
But a Gallup/USA Today poll also published on Tuesday showed
Romney ahead of Obama by 4 percentage points among likely voters
in the 12 battleground states.
Obama aides predicted a stronger showing in the second
debate for the president, who has been in intense debate
preparation for days, even cramming in an hour of homework as
late as Tuesday afternoon.
"I think you'll see somebody who will be strong, who will be
passionate, who will be energetic, who will talk about ... not
just the last four years but what the agenda is for the future
and how we continue to move ... our economy forward," Obama's
senior campaign adviser, Robert Gibbs, said on MSNBC.
Romney also did some last-minute mock debate work, with
Ohio Senator Rob Portman playing Obama.
The actual debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New
York begins at 9 p.m. (0100 GMT Wednesday) and will last for 90
minutes. The audience of about 80 people was picked by the
Gallup polling firm for being undecided local voters from New
York state's Nassau County.
FORMAT COULD BE TRICKY
Obama and Romney will have to deal with the more intimate
town-hall format of this debate, which often inhibits political
attacks as the candidates focus on connecting with the voters
asking the questions.
Obama supporters panned their candidate for being too timid
in the last encounter, but Romney aide Kevin Madden said it
wasn't the Democrat's manner that was the issue.
"I think the problem didn't have anything to do with
politeness. The problem is he doesn't have a record to run on,"
Madden told CNN.
Tuesday night carries an element of uncertainty as the
candidates cannot predict the questions the audience of
undecided voters might pose, which could range from tax policy
to job creation to foreign policy.
"Almost all of the pressure will be on Obama this time,
given how poorly he performed in the first debate and how much
that seemed to help Romney and change the race," said political
scientist Andrew Taylor of North Carolina State University.
The town-hall format lets the candidates "talk directly to
people and look them in the eye and try to connect, which has
not been a strength for either of them," Taylor said. "But you
can still make strong points with a velvet glove."
The Reuters/Ipsos poll that gave Obama an edge showed the
number of undecided voters had increased, indicating a drop of
support for Romney among the coveted voting bloc.
During the first debate, Obama was widely criticized for not
challenging Romney on exactly how he plans to give Americans a
big tax cut without adding to the deficit, and for not calling
attention to the switch to more moderate views Romney appeared
to present during the matchup.
For Obama, the challenge will be to confront Romney on the
issues without seeming nasty or too personal.
Romney, a wealthy former private equity executive often
accused of failing to connect with ordinary people, would be
happy with a steady performance to keep up his momentum.
LINES OF ATTACK
The economy is expected to be a dominant topic. Obama is
able to tout the latest jobs report, which showed that the
unemployment rate dropped unexpectedly to 7.8 percent in
September and reached its lowest level since Obama took office
in January 2009.
Romney has countered that the labor market is not healing
Glenn Hubbard, one of Romney's top economic advisers, told
Reuters the Republican candidate was prepared to question
Obama's record on the economy.
"His objective is to continue the conversation with voters
about what the right economic policies are for the country,"
Hubbard said at an economic conference in New York. "He did that
really well last time and I'd be stunned if he doesn't do it
Romney will likely stay on the offensive over the
administration's handling of diplomatic security in Libya before
Sept. 11 attacks there that killed the U.S. ambassador and three
other Americans. The debate comes a day after Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton assumed responsibility for a lack of security
that failed to protect against the deadly attack.
Romney may also focus on the Obama administration's
subsidies for green energy, after another company - lithium-ion
battery maker A123 Systems - filed for bankruptcy
protection on Tuesday.
"A123's bankruptcy is yet another failure for the
president's disastrous strategy of gambling away billions of
taxpayer dollars on a strategy of government-led growth that
simply does not work," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
For their part, Democrats, hoping to shore up support with
women voters, have hit Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan,
for their opposition to abortion rights.
The Gallup poll highlighted the importance of female voters,
who traditionally prefer Obama. The poll showed Romney had
pulled within 1 point among likely women voters.
The third and final debate will be next Monday in Boca
Raton, Florida, and will focus on foreign policy issues.