A month ago most political pundits said the presidential debates would have little impact on the outcome of the 2012 election. Going into Tuesday night’s debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., most of those same pundits are saying it’s a critical moment for both candidates.
The swift change is a credit to Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who delivered an emphatic victory over President Barack Obama in what even the president’s own aides admitted was a lopsided affair in front of 67 million viewers on Oct. 3.
Romney parlayed the debate victory into a campaign re-set, energizing his supporters and sustaining a bounce in the polls over the last 13 days. The former Massachusetts governor went from trailing by 3 to 5 percentage points in most polls to a 4-point lead—50 percent to 46 percent—as of Tuesday among likely voters, according to Gallup. Romney told a crowd in Ohio last weekend that “there’s a growing crescendo of enthusiasm” surrounding his campaign.
A new USA Today/Gallup poll released Tuesday showed Romney opening a combined four-point lead in the 12 swing states, and he has taken slight leads in the critical swing states of Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina. The latest polling also suggests Romney is closing the gap among women voters, and has taken an eight-point lead among men.
The shift has led some to draw comparisons to Romney’s come-from-behind win for Massachusetts governor in 2002, and Ronald Reagan’s comeback win from 9 points down in the final month of the 1980 presidential election against incumbent Jimmy Carter. But Reagan and Carter only debated once, so the pressure will be on Romney to repeat his performance of two weeks ago to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
Romney’s surge has been aided by Obama being dogged with questions surrounding his administration’s handling of the 9/11 anniversary attack in Libya, which claimed the life of a U.S. ambassador for the first time since the Carter administration. After initially blaming the attack on protests against an anti-Islamic film, the administration acknowledged it was terrorism, and last week confirmed to Congress that requests for additional security for in Benghazi had been denied.
Following his uninspired performance in the first debate, Obama has reportedly engaged in more intense preparation, and he is expected to come after Romney aggressively. Obama took criticism after the first debate for never mentioning Romney’s former firm, Bain Capital, or the secretly recorded video of Romney speaking about “the 47 percent” of Americans who would not vote for him. Expect those topics to come up Tuesday night.
Adding to the intrigue is the format of the debate: a town hall meeting. Questions will come on any topic from an audience of undecided voters selected by The Gallup Organization. The debate moderator, Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent, is tasked with keeping the candidates in line and facilitating the discussion.
While Obama usually connects well with people on a personal level, he sometimes struggles when speaking off the cuff—without the use of a teleprompter—and that could be an issue in Tuesday’s debate. Obama has held only one town hall meeting this year, while Romney has participated in more than 20.
Romney showed a firm grasp of all issues raised during the first debate, which focused on domestic policy, but has a reputation for being stiff and impersonal. He should have ample opportunity to shed that label Tuesday on the national stage.
Last week’s vice presidential debate did little to change the momentum in this race, which is a good thing for the men at the top of each ticket. Both Obama and Romney have opportunities to score big points with voters and change the course of the race—again.