WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — It's either candidate's race to win as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prepare for their second debate Tuesday night, with just three weeks to go until the election and voting well under way in many states.
The Republican challenger had trailed the Democratic incumbent in national polls for weeks, but now has drawn even, benefiting from a boost of enthusiasm following a strong first debate performance 10 days ago. While Romney's standing has improved in some states, Obama retains an edge in the hunt for the 270 electoral votes needed to take the White House. The president also has far more ways than Romney to reach that magic number.
But that's not enough to calm nervous Democrats, even as they revel in Vice President Joe Biden's pull-no-punches turn on the debate stage Thursday night against GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. They are looking for an equally aggressive Obama to show up for the prime-time town-hall style debate in Hempstead, N.Y.
"The race is tightening," said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic campaign strategist and former aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton during her primary campaign against Obama in 2008. "It will be very, very close." But, he added, "The president will win re-election."
Steve Schmidt, the chief Republican strategist four years ago for GOP nominee John McCain, acknowledged Obama's edge but said it could be erased if the president comes off as defensive or dismissive in the second debate as he did in the first. "If he has another debate performance anywhere near that vicinity, it's going to go south for him," Schmidt said.
Last week's feisty confrontation between Biden and Ryan set the stage for Tuesday's presidential debate and gave Republicans an opening to intensify their criticism about Obama's foreign policy. Romney has jumped on Biden's assertion that "we weren't told" of an official request for more security at a consulate in Libya that was attacked by terrorists who killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. The White House spent the bulk of Friday trying to explain what Biden meant.
Expect that issue to come up Tuesday.
As the debate looms large as one of the final opportunities to affect the trajectory of the race, both campaigns are working feverishly in the nine most competitive states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin — to get their core supporters to vote early and persuade undecided voters to back their candidate.
TV ads are a near constant presence, mailboxes are filled with campaign brochures and door-step visits by volunteers are picking up. Obama, Romney, their running mates, families and high-profile Democrats and Republicans are near constant presences in those states, working to tip the balance in a tight race where any factor could make a difference.
Romney's biggest challenge remains Ohio, where polls show Obama with a consistent, slight lead.
Without Ohio's 18 electoral votes, Romney would have to win nearly all the other contested states, most of which are either too close to project a winner or are leaning Obama's way, some solidly.
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