Image: Debate signs
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
Signs hang in the media filing center before Tuesday's presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
NBC News
updated 10/16/2012 2:45:48 PM ET 2012-10-16T18:45:48

President Barack Obama enters his second debate Tuesday against Mitt Romney looking to regain his footing and determined to prevent the Republican challenger from scoring another strong debate performance that could further revitalize the GOP presidential nominee's campaign.

And, by all indications, both candidates are braced for a spirited encounter.

The rhetorical fireworks that had been absent in the first debate on Oct. 3 in Denver between Romney and Obama are almost certain to appear at the second of three presidential debates this fall, this outing set for 9 p.m. ET on the campus of Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Watch tonight's presidential debate with NBC News
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The Obama campaign has sent signals that the president has every intention of actively challenging Romney onstage this evening, frustrating the GOP candidate's efforts to appeal to independents and moderates the way the president hadn't been able to in their first debate.

Romney, meanwhile, has hopes that a second straight positive debate showing would add further momentum to his campaign. The former Massachusetts governor trailed Obama before the Denver debate, but Romney's strong outing has breathed new life into his campaign. A slew of national and state-level polls that have shown a tighter race for the White House in the 13 days since that first debate, with Romney pulling even — or even ahead — of Obama in some polling.

"I know no debate is ever the same and it's going to be fun to watch — maybe more fun for you than for me," Ann Romney said Monday in Pennsylvania about her husband's preparations for the second debate, "but one thing I know for sure: Mitt's prepared, Mitt's confident, Mitt's got a good presence about him, and Mitt's running because he believes in America."

First Thoughts: Why tonight's debate could be so crucial

The Romney resurgence and Democratic handwringing about the president's low-wattage performance in the first debate have prompted a shift in Obama's tack. Democrats almost universally hope for and expect a feistier performance by the president on Tuesday, a shift in strategy that has been telegraphed by the Obama campaign.

A campaign source, for instance, told NBC News on Monday that the president planned to bring up Romney's disparaging comments about the "47 percent" of Americans he said wouldn't vote for him because they depend on government. Obama declined to use this and other potent cudgels against Romney in the first debate.

"I think he's going to be aggressive in making the case for his view of where we should go as a country," Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod said Sunday on Fox in anticipation of the debate. "I mean, we saw Governor Romney sort of serially walk away from his own proposals and certainly the president is going to be willing to challenge him, on it, as we saw the vice president challenge Paul Ryan."

Video: Deep Dive: Town hall debates

The potential for a contentious showdown on national television could transform the second debate into another turning point in the 2012 campaign.

Romney and Obama each holed up for much of the weekend and through Monday to practice for the second debate, which is moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN. She'll serve as the mediator between the candidates and also the audience in this town hall format, where audience members will pose questions of the candidates.

FEATURED: Questions from readers for the second debate

Obama prepared for the debate at a resort in Williamsburg, Va., retreating from the White House much as he had before the first debate, when he studied for the occasion in Nevada.

For his part, Romney has squeezed in debate preparations around his campaign schedule, as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman — who plays Obama in mock debates — appears to have assumed a broader strategic role.

What is clear about the second presidential debate is that several factors that allowed Romney to be successful at the first debate will have changed in tonight's contest.

Vice President Joe Biden's aggressive posture in last week's debate versus GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan suggested that the Obama team won't shrink from a fight in the remaining debates.

While the format is different, Crowley might not be inclined to allow Romney talk past her instructions as the Republican frequently did to moderator Jim Lehrer in the first debate.

RELATED: Obama will try to bend town hall format to his advantage

And, the candidates will have to interact directly with the voters who will be asking the questions.  While the queries will be selected by the moderator, the voters will directly deliver them to the candidates, creating a less formal atmosphere.

The issue profile is sure to be more expansive, too. While Libya and other topics of foreign policy didn't make an appearance in the first Obama-Romney event, they're almost sure to in this second outing. Other topics — from housing to education to immigration — could also threaten to trip up either candidate.

The most important difference might arguably be in Obama, who if nothing else has vowed to cast off the lethargy that plagued his first outing.

Obama himself told a radio host on Oct. 10 that he was "too polite" toward Romney in their first meeting.

"I think it's fair to say that we will see a little more activity at the next one," he said.

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Video: Debate goal: Targeting each other’s records

  1. Closed captioning of: Debate goal: Targeting each other’s records

    >>> so what should we be looking for in tonight's debate? the performances from the two men they've been practicing, be rehearsing for this big night . two men who have been there before and prepared candidates in the past, bob shrum , democratic strategist and former senior adviser to john kerry 's 2004 presidential campaign many others as well and michael gerson " washington post " columnist former adviser to george w. bush in 2000 and 2004 . welcome to both of you.

    >> good to be here.

    >> first to you, the pressure is on the president to do better than he did in denver. what would your advice be to him and telling him behind the scenes ?

    >> the pressure really is on and i think he'll show up and he has to show up with his best game. he's shown a capacity over the years to be at his best when the pressure is on. we saw that in 2008 in the south carolina debate where i think his performance sealed his victory in the primary and probably sealed his nomination. we saw it when health care hung in the balance. i also expect that tonight, we're going to hear a lot more questions, for example, on social issues like women's rights and equal pay. finally, be what somebody said earlier in the show is absolutely right. in this era of reality tv , showmanship matters more than it has. in fact, we probably repelled the rule that you're supposed to be cool. i think you got -- people rate this as a contest. you have to see it as a contest and win it on points. i think the president's probably been prepared for that. by the way, i don't agree with the conventional wisdom you can't do this in a town hall format. you can ask the question, say i'm glad you asked me that, real differences here and then discuss them with empathy and passion.

    >> and can you can you in that context, michael, turn to the other candidate, can president obama turn to mitt romney , can mitt romney turn to president obama and just take each other on within the context of the question that the person has asked?

    >> i think it's perfectly possible to be forceful in the context of a town hall debate. i think you can't use the people that actually question as props. you have it to address their concerns, you have to show genuine empathy. that's a challenge for romney. that's not necessarily been his strength, but then you can turn it into a firm but not nasty confrontation with your opponent. that's been very successfully done. i think president obama needs to do more than that, though. he has to show some spirit and some vision for the next four years, which frankly he did not show in the first debate and his convention speech. he's getting criticism from his own party on that front. how is the next four years different than the last four in specific ways. that's a challenge for him as well.

    >> does president obama have to be more specific? we've talked about earlier with kevin madden, i was talking about how he has to be more specific, which so far he has not been, about how exactly his tax cuts would add up. doesn't the president also, bob, have to be more specific about what he would do differently in the next four years?

    >> i don't know that i like the world "differently," but he has to be specific and set out a vision for the next four years. i think michael is right about that. he has to talk about what was achieved, but then be very honest and say it to people, that's not enough. we have to do more, and here's what i want to do. i think, for example, we will hear about his desire to create a million more manufacturing jobs, his plan to do so and hire 100,000 more teachers. they'll be less like a list of ideas and there's more in the context of what kind of country we can become if we do these things.

    >> andrea -- i'm sorry.

    >> i was going to say you're both great speech writers. that's one of the wonderful virtues that you share. what do you do when you don't have an opening statement or a closing statement ? how does that affect tonight's format? it permits neither.

    >> i don't think that the formal remarks in this context are what's decisive. i think a lot of it is body language and a lot is the way you elm path size people. it's al gore being too aggressive and getting in george bush 's face in 20 thou that fired on him. imt not sure speeches are kind of what you do in a context like this. i do think that the challenge that the president has is significant, though. you know, if you would look at the polling, people don't want continuity. they want change. for an incumbent to position himself as an agent of change is a difficult communication task, and that's what his task is tonight.

    >> we're going to have to leave it there. thank you so much. we'll be right


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