THE candidates for the White House hunkered down last night cramming for tonight's second of three debates in Hempstead, New York, while both campaigns continued to look for ways to bolster their numbers in Ohio, a state that both regard as critical to their chances of victory.
For President Barack Obama, who prepared at a golf resort in Virginia, tonight's debate is a crucial moment in which he will need to show that his listless performance at the first debate in Denver was just a blip. He is "calm and energised", an aide said. But because tonight's face-off will be in a town hall setting with audience members asking questions, he may not want to seem overly aggressive in ripping into his rival, Mitt Romney.
"To do well, you have to be ultra-responsive to the audience," warned Larry Sabato, director of political studies at the University of Virginia. "They almost never ask anything negative, and they almost always bristle when a candidate goes negative." Of the President, he added: "He can't conduct the second debate as a make-up session for his disastrous first debate, or he'll lose the second one, too."
Nonetheless, the Obama campaign last night again charged that Mr Romney had used the Denver stage to dissemble and distort his true positions. "No doubt, over the last couple of days while he has been practising and preparing for the debate, he's spent time memorising deceptions and ways to hide from his severely conservative record, positions, I should say," an Obama spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, told reporters.
With three weeks until voting day, there are signs of some settling in the polls after a 10-day stretch that saw Mr Romney pull into a dead heat with the President nationally as well as in some battleground states. Less encouraging for the Republican was a Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey last night showing the President holding on to a five-point lead in Ohio of 51-46pc.
Keeping the focus on Ohio, Paul Ryan, the Republican running mate, was headed last night to Cincinnati while the First Lady Michelle Obama visited Cleveland. Tomorrow, Mr Obama will himself be in the state while on Thursday his campaign will look for a leg-up from former president Bill Clinton and rock legend Bruce Springsteen, making a joint appearance in Parma, Ohio, south of Cleveland.
Senator Robert Portman of Ohio, who has been playing Mr Obama in debate rehearsals with Mr Romney at his campaign HQ in Boston, said there is no over-estimating his state's importance. "You can probably win the presidency without Ohio but I wouldn't want to take the risk and no Republican has," he commented.
In a continuing effort to build up support among women, the Obama campaign yesterday wheeled out a new television spot in Ohio and other battleground states featuring actresses Scarlett Johansson, Eva Longoria and Kerry Washington. The spot suggests that, in office, Mr Romney would seek to overturn the Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights, Roe vs Wade, and end funding for Planned Parenthood. "I want to talk to you about women," Johansson says at the start of the spot, followed by Washington saying, "And about Mitt Romney." Longoria takes up the theme, "Mitt Romney is for ending funding to Planned Parenthood".
Asked what version of Mr Obama viewers should expect tonight, Ms Psaki responded: "He's going to be firm but respectful in correcting the record and the times we expect Mitt Romney will hide from and distort his own policies. He's energised and I expect he will also be making a passionate case."
Appearing on a Philadelphia radio station, Ann Romney underscored the impact her husband's unexpectedly energised performance in Denver had had on his polling. "The debate was huge and we've seen our numbers move all across the country," she suggested. She also noted the much larger crowds had started showing up at her husband's events, including in Ohio. "That's what you call momentum," she said.
At an early-morning rally in Wisconsin, Mr Ryan yesterday went on the offensive over the increasing deficit under the Obama term with the help of a digital debt clock erected for the event. "Look at how fast those numbers are running," Mr Ryan told the crowd. "We know without a shred of doubt that we have consigned the next generation to this path of debt."
Romney vs Obama: the issues that will settle the argument
ECONOMY/TAXES: Aside from attacking on the economy, he must do better in explaining a tax-cutting plan that the Democrats say doesn't add up
HEALTHCARE: He must reassure viewers that repealing Obamacare doesn't mean they will be without insurance and that Medicare for retirees is safe
LIBYA: He will surely raise the killings at the Benghazi consulate as well as Iran as examples of Obama foreign policy gone awry
DEMEANOUR: The town hall setting will give Romney the opportunity to show that he can "connect" with ordinary people
OVERALL MESSAGE: This is a chance to explain that he wants to do more than just take America back to trickle-down economics and favouring the rich
ECONOMY/TAXES: Since the last debate, the unemployment rate has at last fallen below eightpc. Expect the President to trumpet it
HEALTHCARE: The healthcare reform has not been popular; it's time for him to remind voters why its good for them and to say why Romney would end Medicare
LIBYA: Reclaim foreign policy as his strong suit. But he must explain why his administration couldn't get its story straight about what happened in Benghazi
DEMEANOUR: He will be under pressure to be more forceful this time, calling Mr Romney out, but without turning voters off
OVERALL MESSAGE: His campaign motto is "Forward", but there is a hunger for him to explain more clearly what he would do in a second term