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First Thoughts: Why tonight's debate could be so crucial, Part 2

Why tonight’s debate could be so crucial… Obama’s opportunity -- to be a fighter and explain his vision for a second term… Romney’s opportunity -- to better connect with Americans… The skinny on tonight’s debate: It’s a town hall format, and it begins at 9:00 pm ET from Hofstra University… Clinton: “I take responsibility”… And Obama camp on “flawed” Gallup poll.

A decisive victory for either candidate at Tuesday's debate could create a sense of momentum that's tough for the other to stop before Election Day. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports

 *** Why tonight’s debate could be so crucial, Part 2: It was less than two weeks ago when, before the first presidential debate in Denver, we wrote that Mitt Romney was facing a crucial moment in his campaign. It was coming right after President Obama's convention bounce, the scrutiny over the 47% comment, and all the handwringing over the state of the Romney campaign. How quickly the narrative can change. Now it's Obama facing a crucial moment -- to fully turn the page on that first debate performance. The president isn't behind, and he still holds more paths to 270 electoral votes. But he needs to stop Romney's momentum and get it back on his side. Our bottom line: Tonight is all about suburban women; it has been Obama’s demographic firewall. Romney has made progress with them on his fav rating and on handling the economy, but not on ballot test. Tonight will tell us whether he continues to make progress...

*** Obama’s opportunity -- to be a fighter and explain his vision for a second term: NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) sums up tonight’s debate in a different way in a new memo: Obama's situation is akin to the Washington Nationals' playoff game last Friday. "[A] six- point lead is sliced to three, and there is still time to go." And now it’s 7-5 in the eighth inning, and the closer is warming up in the bullpen. Hart's memo comes after conducting a focus group of swing voters in the Columbus, OH area in the wake of the first debate, which the Democratic pollster says gave Romney a second look and left these voters baffled by Obama. Here was one reaction: “Normally a strong presence, [Obama] seemed lackluster.” Another: “Seemed shocked to me and everyone else was shocked too.” And another: “I was yelling at my TV, I was so disappointed with his performance I didn’t know what to think; it was extremely disappointing, I expected him to be a lot stronger and more prepared.” Hart says these voters want to see both a fighter and someone who will lay out what a second term will mean. “They need to see the fight, the inspiration, and the grittiness of Obama, which they perceive is just plain missing,” he writes. “From the beginning of this campaign, voters simply have wanted to know that his second term will be better than his first and that he has learned and grown from the experience.”

Read more: Peter Hart's memo 

*** Romney’s opportunity -- to better connect with Americans: As for Romney, Hart says that the former Massachusetts governor got a second look from the focus-group voters. Now he needs to better connect with Americans. "On the economic front, [he] may have the credentials, but he has yet to translate them into something these voters can grasp firmly. They know he has held the position and done the deals, but there are no specifics." Hart adds, “The bottom line for Romney is that when voters are asked what relative he would be in their family, he ends up as the ‘step dad’: no blood kin, but someone who accepts you only because he has to. He has never been able to close that emotional linkage with the voters.” By the way, don’t lose sight of Ross Perot’s endorsement of Romney in today’s Des Moines Register. Yes, this is one rich man endorsing another rich man. And Perot’s politics have always been Republican leaning. But the issue Perot is best known for -- the deficit -- is something that potentially plays well in Iowa, with older voters who remember who Perot is. And so the endorsement carries symbolic importance. 

*** The skinny on tonight’s debate: Tonight’s debate, which takes place at 9:00 pm ET from Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, features questions from uncommitted voters selected by the Gallup Organization and is moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley. Romney will take the first question, and Obama gets the second. There are no closing statements. 

*** Clinton: “I take responsibility”: The topic that led off last week’s VP debate -- Libya -- is back in the news. Last night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took full responsibility for the lack of security at the Benghazi consulate, where four Americans were killed, including the U.S. ambassador. "I take responsibility," she told CNN during a visit to Peru. "I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They're the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision." In another interview with NBC, Clinton contended that politics should be taken out of an episode like the Benghazi attack. "I really believe that tragedies like what happened in Benghazi should be viewed in a non-political way. Everybody should pull together as Americans."

*** Obama camp on “flawed” Gallup poll: Yesterday, it was the Obama campaign voicing disagreement with “flawed” public polls. The object of this complaint: a new USA Today/Gallup survey showing 1) Romney leading in the battleground states, and 2) Romney tied with Obama among women in those states. Obama pollster Joel Benenson fired off this memo: “The latest Gallup/ USA Today Battleground survey showing President Obama and Governor Romney tied with women in battleground states (48-48) is an extreme outlier, defying the trends seen in every other battleground and national poll.” He added, “We believe the problem with Gallup’s outlying data is rooted in their 7 question likely voter screen, which distorts the composition of likely voters, leading to erratic and inaccurate results.” We’ve had our issue with Gallup’s numbers in the past, and our most recent NBC/WSJ/Marist polls all showed Obama with double-digit leads among women in Florida (54%-41%), Ohio (54%-42%), and Virginia (54%-42%). But issuing a memo like this also doesn’t demonstrate strength; it screams nervousness. You typically don’t complain about the polls when everything is going well. 

*** The latest battleground polls: Speaking of polls, here are the latest surveys from the battlegrounds: In New Hampshire, Obama and Romney are all tied up at 47%-47% in a Suffolk poll. And in Pennsylvania, Obama leads by just four points in Quinnipiac, 50%-46%, and Muhlenberg, 49%-45%. Don’t ignore the tightening polls in “Lean Obama” states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. It reflects what we’re seeing nationally. 

*** On the trail: Vice President Biden attends Arlen Specter’s funeral in Penn Valley, PA at noon ET… Paul Ryan hits rallies in Lynchburg, VA at 11:35 am ET and Fredericksburg, VA at 6:30 pm ET… And Michelle Obama campaigns in Chapel Hill, NC. 

Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 6 days
Countdown to Election Day: 21 days

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