By TOM RAUM
The presidential contest is razor close.
From now on, even little things can have big consequences - making Tuesday night's debate at Hofstra University exceptionally crucial.
President Barack Obama's passivity and Republican Mitt Romney's aggressive self-assurance in their Denver debate debut prompted both camps to award the advantage to Romney.
Obama is now looking for a rebound. He's under pressure to spell out exactly what he'd do in a second term.
Romney must guard against overconfidence and present himself as a taskmaster able to reach across party lines.
He'll likely be pressed to explain more clearly how his across-the-board tax cuts wouldn't raise taxes on middle-class voters or lower them on the wealthy.
Foreign policy, including the terror attack on a U.S. mission in Libya that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, seems sure to come up.
Body language counts for a lot.
In a town-hall format such as Tuesday's in suburban Hempstead on New York's Long Island, the candidates face questions from undecided voters - requiring both to connect with everyday Americans.
In the past, Obama generally has done well in such settings.
Exactly three weeks out, neither candidate is near to closing the deal.
Recent national polls all point to a tight race, with the differences falling within each poll's margin of sampling error. Still, multiple polls have found increased enthusiasm among Romney backers.
Both teams waged heavy pre-debate spin Tuesday.
Obama will emphasize that "the path that we've been on is much better than where we've been," said Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod.
Republican party Chairman Reince Priebus said Romney's momentum is helping to fuel a high-energy GOP get-out-the-vote drive in battleground states: "We're blowing the doors off where we were in 2008."
Five things to watch for when President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney meet in their second debate:
1. A REBOUND? After taking a drubbing in the first debate, Obama's under big pressure to step up his game Tuesday night. He'll try to show energy and passion. And look for him to challenge Romney's claims more often. Obama's comfortable taking audience questions at campaign events, and that should work in his favor at this "town hall" style debate.
2. MAN OF THE PEOPLE? The town hall format holds risk and opportunity for Romney. It could be a great chance to address one of the wealthy businessman's trouble spots - poll respondents rate him as less likable than Obama and less in tune with regular folks. Romney could warm up his image if he connects well with the voters on stage. What he needs to avoid: coming across as awkward or elitist.
3. MORE CIVIL? Expect a less confrontational tone. Although Democrats are urging Obama to go on the offensive, he needs to balance that against the restraints of the town hall atmosphere. The two candidates will try to sound civil even while underscoring their differences, to show respect for the folks surrounding them onstage.
4. THE PEOPLE SPEAK: What will the voters ask? Usually not the kinds of questions posed by journalists moderating more traditional debates. The "real people" tend to frame questions in broader terms and are less likely to focus on the latest charges and countercharges. Sometimes they come up with something out of left field; that's the moment to see how candidates think on their feet.
5. MORE THAN WORDS: They won't be moored to a lectern or table, so this is the time to check out each man's body language. Does a candidate seem relaxed and natural or ill at ease? Does he show empathy for the questioner by stepping in close and making eye contact? Is he attentive while the other guy is talking, or does he grimace and move around distractingly or - even worse - check his watch?
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