High stakes on eve of second Obama-Romney debate

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DENVER -- At a press conference Monday at a field office just south of the University of Denver site where President Barack Obama laid an egg in the first debate two weeks ago, Colorado's two Democratic U.S. senators tried to put the pressure on Mitt Romney heading in the second debate Tuesday night.

They offered a 27-page report from the Obama campaign's policy director about how Romney's budget priorities might hurt Colorado seniors, students and veterans; and they argued that Romney needs to come clean with more specifics about his proposed spending cuts and tax cut promises.

"From our public lands to our schools and our energy policy to Medicare, the Romney/Ryan budget would harm Colorado for decades to come," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Boulder. "President Obama's policies will continue moving us forward."

But no amount of rhetoric from surrogates can change the political reality -- that the pressure is on Obama, not Romney, to deliver a performance that will steady his campaign in the final three weeks.

With early voting about to get underway in Colorado and several swing states, Romney is the candidate with all the momentum, within a couple points or leading in eight of nine swing states and trying to put others in play.

Obama advisers promise that the president will be more energetic on the stage at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York than he was at DU two weeks ago.

But the format of the debate, a town hall setting where the candidates answer pre-selected questions from people in the audience, makes it harder for Obama to forcefully attack Romney as he was unable or unwilling to do in Denver.

"It's a format that advantages any candidate who is comfortable in their own skin," said political analyst Eric Sondermann.

"The master was Bill Clinton. Perhaps it advantages Obama, he's an athlete, he's pretty smooth with his body movements. But he's not exactly an effusive people-person. He doesn't always warm to the audience.

"Romney was really in his element behind that podium at DU, firing away at a candidate who provided little push-back and a moderator who also provided very little push-back," Sondermann continued. "It's harder to do that in a group of undecided voters."

Polls show Romney closing the gap in swing states and leading most national tracking polls, albeit by small margins in some cases. A Gallup/USA Today swing state survey released Monday showed Romney ahead 51-46 overall in 12 swing states and even with Obama among women voters.

"As much as we like to see those numbers move, Gov. Romney and Paul Ryan understand that there's a long campaign still in front of us," said former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, in a satellite interview with FOX31 Denver Monday from the Romney campaign headquarters in Boston. "But the reason we feel they're moving is women care about the situation in the country with the economy.

"The failure of the Obama administration to do anything for the 23 million who are unemployed or underemployed is probably the biggest issue of the campaign."

And yet, Obama's sustained lead in Ohio, measured anywhere between one and five points of late, still gives him an easier path to 270 electoral votes.

Simply put, Tuesday's debate comes at a critical time in this campaign and has the potential to allow Obama to steady his campaign and to solidify his Ohio firewall; but anything short of a clear victory for the president could allow Romney to continue his momentum and build enough of a head of steam to overtake Obama in Ohio and most additional battleground states.

"Romney wants to build momentum with a win Tuesday night," Sondermann said. "But he'll be happy with anything that doesn't cost him momentum. He just can't afford to lose it."

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