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Presidential candidates play a game before debates, each lowers expectations that he'll do well, then tries to beat expectations. The last part didn't work out for President Obama this last time, so he tries again tonight.
INSKEEP: The president meets Mitt Romney with their contest effectively tied. They hold a town hall meeting with about 80 uncommitted voters.
MONTAGNE: CNN's Candy Crowley will moderate.
Here's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Democratic strategist Tad Devine says tonight the stakes could not be higher. By whiffing his first encounter with Governor Romney, President Obama has put tremendous pressure on himself.
TAD DEVINE: Yeah, he has. I think that everybody, including the president, recognizes he had a very weak first debate performance. And this town hall meeting debate, he's going to have to perform much better. If he doesn't, Romney's going to be able to continue to build the momentum that came out of the first debate. And so what happens in this town hall meeting could determine the election's outcome.
LIASSON: Romney, for the first time, is feeling the wind at his back.
MITT ROMNEY: Now, you may have noticed that earlier in the week we had a debate. That was last week. And...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
ROMNEY: ...that was that was a good debate. I enjoyed that debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
LIASSON: Romney's top strategist, Ed Gillespie, told "Fox News Sunday" that tonight Romney will make the contrast with the president very clear.
ED GILLESPIE: This is a big choice election. And the fact is, what we saw was, even if he changes his style - and whatever political tactic the president settles on as being in his best interest for this debate - he can't change his record and he can't change his policies.
LIASSON: The Obama team has been promising a more aggressive approach tonight. But in a town hall debate format that could be hard to, say Tad Devine.
DEVINE: And for the president, it's going to be a little difficult because everybody wanted him to be more aggressive - after that first debate. But this is not a format that rewards that kind of aggressiveness. So he's going to have to find the balance between connecting with people, answering their questions, being on their side.
And also, making sure that Governor Romney doesn't do what he did in the first debate, which is essentially dominate the president; and also put forth policy positions that were different than the ones he had talked about for a long time in the campaign and get away with it.
LIASSON: That's a very long list of goals to accomplish in one debate. The president has been prepping in private. And in public, he's trying out some humorous attack lines.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: After running for more than a year in which he called himself severely conservative, Mitt Romney's trying to convince you that he was severely kidding.
LIASSON: Another thing about town hall debates, they're unpredictable. And the audience provides the surprises like this plea the president got from voter Velma Hart at a town hall meeting in 2010.
VELMA HART: I'm a wife. I'm an American veteran. And I'm one of your middle-class Americans. And quite frankly, I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now.
LIASSON: Or this man, who confronted Romney in a town hall meeting during the New Hampshire primary.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You've said that corporations are people. But in the last two years corporate profits have surged to record highs, directly at the expense of wages. It seems that the U.S. is a great place to be a corporation, but increasingly a desperate place to live and work.
LIASSON: Before the first debate with the president, Romney looked like he was on the verge of losing. But since then, says Republican strategist Terry Holt, he's turned the race into a dead heat nationally, and he's within striking distance in the Electoral College battleground.
TERRY HOLT: The race has always been more fluid than I think some pollsters have tried to show us. This is a race between an incumbent that people want to like, but whose policies are unpopular, and a challenger who seems to have the right recipes of policies, but has failed to make a solid connection with the voters.
What happened in the debate, in my view, the other night, was Mitt Romney finally got unplugged. He was in the spotlight and he demonstrated that he has leadership qualities, that he can stand toe-to-toe with the president.
LIASSON: Expectations always play a huge role. Before Denver, most voters expected the president to dominate, but the opposite happened. So tonight, expectations will be a little higher for Romney. Tad Devine, who ran campaigns against Romney in Massachusetts, says tonight people will tune in just to see whether or not it's going to be a different show.
DEVINE: Can the president come back? There's still a lot of interest now. You know, these debates are becoming like a mini-series on television, a dramatic mini-series. So I think the expectations this time for Governor Romney are going to be much higher. The expectations for the president, I don't think they've been diminished, even though he had a poor performance, but I think there are a lot of people out there wondering what's he going to do?
LIASSON: So tonight is a real political cliffhanger, with the suspense all about President Obama and whether he can reverse Governor Romney's newfound momentum. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.