Candidates prepare for possibly pivotal debate on Long Island Tuesday

NEW YORK – , President Obama and Mitt Romney enter the second presidential debate Tuesday night with vital missions: the incumbent needs to display the urgency he lacked in the first debate, while the challenger is hoping to build on his momentum of the past 10 days.

With Super Bowl-sized audiences tuning in to what’s become a weekly political mini-series, the stakes are high for President Obama. Another performance like the one he had in Denver – where even supporters said he was lackluster and timid—would sow further doubt about his ability to inspire.

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“Campaigns have pivot points, and we’re at one right now in the presidential campaign. This is one that can go in one direction or another,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine. “If Romney cleans Obama’s clock again, it could change the outcome of the election.”

Obama has spent the past three days in Williamsburg, Va., near three golf courses he didn’t play , a Ferrari convention he didn’t attend, and a historic colonial village he didn’t visit. Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, has been by his side, playing the role of Romney in mock debates. Kerry was spotted by reporters carrying a massive binder filled with color-coded section markers. .

Romney spent the day in Massachusetts, undergoing several hours of last-minute debate preparations with his top aides.

The debate, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., starts at 9 p.m. and will be televised by all major cable and network stations. While it will focus on both domestic and foreign policy – and will be moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley – the debate will be in a town hall format, providing an opportunity for unpredictable moments.

Before the candidates even took the stage, the machinations began. The campaigns had mutually agreed to a format that would not allow for follow-up questions during a town hall debate – but Crowley and the Commission on Presidential Debates were not part of that agreement, creating a last minute wrinkle.

Romney and Obama are both practiced speechmakers when using teleprompters and prepared remarks, but known to skirt press conferences and off-the-cuff events where they might get curveball questions. The debate audience will consist of about 80 undecided voters from Nassau County, and their questions will be submitted ahead of time.

Because the format is designed to put them before undecided voters who have direct questions, it may be more difficult for Obama to directly rebut Romney with the forcefulness that he lacked when they were both behind podiums in the last debate.

The town hall format was introduced two decades ago, and over the years it has provided some memorable moments. In 1992, George H.W. Bush came across as impatient when he was caught looking down at his watch, and snippy with a voter who asked about the national debt. Bill Clinton, who exuded empathy, was considered to have won the debate. In 2000, when Al Gore stood too close to George W. Bush as his rival spoke, Bush looked at him quizzically and the crowd laughed. In 2008, John McCain was mocked for seeming to wander around the stage as Obama spoke.

One of the knocks against Romney is his struggles to connect with average voters, and his tendency to sometimes ask them curious questions. Some of Romney’s biggest gaffes on the campaign trail have come in response to voters’ questions at town hall meetings.

But debates of any format loom large in a tight race, which this has become.

“For us, we think these are a great opportunity for a huge number of American citizens to get a look at Mitt Romney and size him up as a potential president,” said Tom Rath, a Romney adviser and veteran Republican operative in New Hampshire. “It’s close. Everybody knows it’s close. This election has yet to be decided—and when you’re running against an incumbent president and you’re the challenger that’s a pretty good place to be three weeks out.”

The race appeared to be tilting heavily in Obama’s favor just two weeks ago, with Romney’s campaign roiling from an ill-timed response on an attack in Libya and the release of a secretly recorded fundraiser video in which Romney in May said that 47 percent of Americans considered themselves “victims,” and refused to take personal responsibility for their lives. .

But Obama didn’t bring up any of Romney’s perceived shortcomings in the first debate, and rarely challenged Romney as he staked out a more moderate tone than he did in the Republican primary race. Romney’s approach worked, and he immediately surged in national polls and in many of the swing states where the election will be decided.

“You should expect that 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,” Jen Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman, told reporters in Virginia. “He’s energized and I expect he will also be making a passionate case.”

Some of Romney’s donors began to gather in New York on Monday, coming to the Waldorf Astoria hotel for a three-day retreat for the top contributors to his campaign. They were scheduled on Monday night to hold a dinner at the Intrepid Museum, where featured guests included vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and entertainment and business mogul Donald Trump.

The retreat – which on Tuesday features several briefings from top Romney advisers – came as the Romney campaign announced that it had raised $170 million in September, a figure that is a monthly best for Romney but trails Obama’s near-record $181 million haul in September.

Still, Romney’s fundraising total is impressive, in part because it came during a stretch in the race where his campaign was struggling and donors were grumbling.

Romney has focused most closely on Virginia, Ohio, and Florida. But in a sign that the Romney campaign may be dipping their toes into new territory, Ann Romney on Monday made a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, a state that so far has been seen as reliably Democratic. Polls have been increasingly tightening, likely giving Tuesday’s debate even greater significance.