WASHINGTON -- The pressure is on President Barack Obama to deliver a Goldilocks performance in the second debate: Not too cool, as he was in his first, listless encounter with Mitt Romney. And not too hot, as some critics styled Vice President Joe Biden in his faceoff with Paul Ryan.
With the race extremely tight and little time left for a breakout moment, Obama is intent on getting the porridge just right in a 90-minute, one-on-one faceoff Tuesday at Hofstra University on New York's Long Island.
The candidates will take questions on domestic and foreign policy from an audience of about 80 of the coveted uncommitted voters whom both campaigns are so furiously courting with just three weeks left until Election Day. The town hall-style format makes it especially tricky for Obama to strike the right balance in coming on strong against Romney without turning off the audience -- and tens of millions of television viewers -- by going too negative.
The importance attached to this year's debates is reflected in the significant chunks of time that both candidates have spent preparing. Obama, faulted for being ill-prepared for the first faceoff with Romney, largely dropped out of sight for the last three days to attend "debate camp" at a resort in Williamsburg, Va. And Romney, the clear victor in Round One, has devoted big blocks of time to rehearsals over the last several days as well.
The Campaign 2012 juggernaut has raced ahead nonetheless: Both sides have unfurled new ads, hustled at the grassroots level to lock down every possible voter, dispatched surrogates to rev up enthusiasm and kept the running mates busy raising cash and campaigning in the most hotly contested states.
Obama's campaign turned to former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday to make the case against what it says is Romney's $5 trillion tax cut. Clinton appears in a web video for the campaign, picking apart Romney's tax plan piece by piece, saying his approach "hasn't worked before and it won't work this time."
The president's campaign says Romney hid from his tax proposal during the first debate, and pledged Obama would be more aggressive in calling out his rival's shifts on that and other issues this time around. Clinton, who has been praised by Democrats for explaining Obama's economic arguments more clearly than the president himself, appeared to be laying the groundwork in the video released hours before the second faceoff.
Obama's campaign, buoyed by recent encouraging news, also released a new ad Monday in which ordinary Americans talk about signs of economic progress.
"Stick with this guy," one man urges.
Ryan played counterpoint, making the case in Ohio and Wisconsin that while Obama had inherited a tough economic situation, the president's policies had only made things worse.
In an in-your-face move, the Republicans parked their "Commit to Mitt Early Vote Express Tour Bus" in Williamsburg, where Obama was rehearsing for the debate, to encourage Virginians to cast early ballots for the GOP ticket.
Count Michelle Obama among the million-plus people around the country who've already voted -- in her case, not for Romney. Mrs. Obama dropped her Illinois absentee ballot in the mail Monday to highlight the convenience of getting voting out of the way ahead of Election Day.
"Today! I voted for my husband. Yes!" she enthused before college students in Delaware, Ohio. "It felt so good."
The president plans to cast an in-person ballot in Chicago on Oct. 25 -- making history as the first incumbent to vote early.
Obama issued a fundraising appeal via email Monday in which he told supporters, "Listen, this race is tied" and said the outcome would determine the country's future for decades.
"That's what I'll be fighting for up on that stage tomorrow night -- but I can't do it alone," he added.
Romney's campaign released its latest fundraising report, showing the Republicans raised more than $170 million in September, slightly behind Obama's $181 million haul for the month. But Republicans have been energized by Romney's strong debate performance two weeks ago, and his top donors are holding a three-day retreat at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel to talk strategy.
There's been no letup in the pace of activity in the nine battleground states whose electoral votes will decide the election: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Ryan attends rallies in Virginia on Tuesday, but Biden postponed a two-day campaign swing through Nevada to attend Tuesday's funeral for former Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. The two served together in the Senate for nearly two decades.
Michelle Obama campaigns in North Carolina on Tuesday.
Romney is hoping to keep his momentum going with another solid debate performance. Recent national polls show likely voters about evenly divided, but multiple surveys have detected increasing enthusiasm among Romney backers.
"The debate was huge and we've seen our numbers move all across the country," Ann Romney told Philadelphia radio station WPHT.
Now Obama is looking for the same kind of boost from a comeback performance.
"The president is his own harshest critic and he knows that Mitt Romney had a better debate," said campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki. She described the president as "calm and energized and just looking forward to getting to New York" for the debate.
Body language expert Patti Wood said the first two debates had showed the importance of projecting a strong image to viewers.
To counter Romney's forceful debate performance, she said, Obama needs to work on projecting "alpha" non-verbal signals, conveying that "he really wants to move forward, he really wants to win, he really wants to continue to be president."
Biden, she said, overcompensated for Obama's lackluster performance and "went way over the top on volume level and aggressive interruption, rabbit-like jumping-in behavior."
Tuesday's debate audience of uncommitted voters was selected by the Gallup Organization. Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN will choose those who get to speak, after reviewing proposed questions to avoid repeats.
The final debate of the campaign will be Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., focusing on foreign policy.