Can Obama deliver a solid debate performance and stop erosion?

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question as U.S. President Barack Obama listens during the first presidential debate in Denver October 3, 2012.
( REUTERS/Jim Bourg)

Losing ground to Republican Mitt Romney on a host of issues, President Barack Obama faces a serious challenge to put his re-election bid back on track when the two men face off on Tuesday in their second debate.

Obama’s passive performance in their first debate two weeks ago and Romney’s subsequent surge have raised expectations for a more fiery encounter at New York’s Hofstra University.

The Democratic president’s team has been encouraged by the feisty performance of Vice President Joe Biden last week in his debate against Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

Now, with Romney having virtually erased Obama’s lead in national polls just three weeks before the November 6 election, Obama is hoping to take advantage of the town hall-style format in Tuesday’s debate to make a direct pitch to voters.

Obama is likely to pitch his economic vision, which focuses on a tax breaks for the middle class and tax increases for the wealthy. Romney has called for across-the-board tax cuts and sparred with Obama over whether such a plan would add to the nation’s debt problems.

On Sunday, Reuters/Ipsos surveys of likely voters indicated Romney had closed the gap or overtaken Obama in the past two weeks on a range of issues – from who would be better at creating jobs to dealing with taxes and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Although the U.S. unemployment rate dipped below 8 percent last month for the first time since Obama took office in January 2009, Romney now leads the incumbent by 42.5 percent to 39.2 percent among likely voters on the question of who would be better at creating jobs. That reverses a lead of almost 6 points for Obama on that issue on September 30, before the first debate.

The pressure is now on Obama, who has acknowledged he was “too polite” in that debate, to be more confrontational without appearing strident or desperate. For Romney, the task is simply to turn in another sure-footed performance that keeps the Republican momentum rolling.

“Obama can’t afford another really bad debate performance, he won’t have time to recover,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. “He’s up against it now.”

Biden showed his boss the way on Thursday with an energetic debate against Ryan. Both sides seemed happy after that debate, but most polls indicated that more voters saw Biden as the winner, despite criticism of his sarcastic asides, dismissive grins and questions over his claim that the administration was not fully aware of the security needs at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, before an assault there last month that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

To fire up Democrats while retaining the sympathy of independent voters who like him personally but are uncertain about his leadership, Obama will have to show Biden’s passion without his histrionics.

Obama often displays that passion on the campaign trail, comfortably hammering Romney with an easy style. Whether he can do so in the town-hall format of the debate, where undecided voters will ask questions of the two candidates, is an open question.

The intimate setting of that format sometimes restrains candidates from being too aggressive as they focus on questions from individuals rather than a moderator.

“You don’t want to be too nasty in front of those voters, you need to have to have your empathy antenna up,” said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

But the change in atmosphere from a stilted one-on-one standoff could make Obama “feel more at liberty to be expressive, less somber,” Buchanan said. “He’s very good at using crowds in a jocular way to attack his opponent. He does that every day on the stump.”

ROMNEY’S POLL SURGE

A Reuters/Ipsos daily online tracking poll on Sunday showed Obama leading Romney by 1 percentage point, 46 to 45, down from a 3-point Romney lead last Thursday – a possible sign that the Republican’s surge after the first debate could be running out of steam.

But underlying trends in Reuters/Ipsos data are worrying for Obama. They show voters are evaluating Romney more favorably on key issues that could influence how they vote.
While Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has erased President Barack Obama’s overall poll lead, the Democrat remains ahead on some core issues such as healthcare and voters would still rather spend time with Obama than with Romney.

Romney, however, has narrowed the gap on “likability” as well as on how “presidential” he is compared to Obama.

The shifting numbers in a Reuters/Ipsos poll hint at where the two candidates are vulnerable in Tuesday’s town hall debate in Hempstead, New York.

Romney’s position in the horse race improved after the first debate in Denver on October 3, with the Republican drawing level in national polls. He has also taken a decisive lead on the federal government deficit: Americans now prefer his plan to Obama’s by an eight-point margin, whereas Obama led by one in the week before the debate.

Obama now leads Romney by eight points on healthcare, and by nine on Medicare, down from pre-debate levels of 12 and 14, respectively. On one social issue that was not raised in Denver, gay marriage, Obama leads by 19 points, up by two points since before the debate.

Still, Romney’s performance in Colorado did help narrow the gap in measures of personality and presentation, weakening what were previously unquestioned Obama leads.

The president’s lead over Romney on “likability” was 22 points in polls conducted the week ending with October 14 – down from 28 before the debate – while his advantage on the question, “which candidate would be more fun to meet in person?” fell from 28 to a still-commanding 24 points.

Romney’s biggest lead over Obama came when voters were asked which candidate is more a “man of faith”: the Mormon Romney led Obama, a Protestant, by 40 percent to 29 percent, with 31 percent responding either “don’t know” or “neither.”

Obama’s failure in Denver to deliver the soaring rhetoric some voters have come to expect from him caused his lead in the category of eloquence to drop by 12 points, to 16.

Perhaps even more painful for the president, Romney gained four points while Obama lost three on the question “which candidate is more presidential?” That narrowed the gap to just nine percentage points.

The data comes from a set of online polls that have been conducted since January. Sample size varies from question to question. Pre-debate numbers are from the week ending September 30, and post-debate numbers are from the week ending October 14.

(The Reuters/Ipsos database is now public and searchable here: tinyurl.com/reuterspoll)

(Reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti in New York; Editing by Claudia Parsons and Douglas Royalty)

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.

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