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John King: Stakes enormous in second debate

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
October 16, 2012 -- Updated 1631 GMT (0031 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • GOP strategist: Romney took big step in making election referendum on Obama
  • Democratic pollster: Obama's first debate made swing voters give Romney a second look
  • Romney still has connection gap; focus group said term that best fits him is "stepdad"
  • First debate made Romney campaign consider turning supposedly safe Obama states

Washington (CNN) -- The expectations are very different for Obama vs. Romney, Round 2. And the stakes are enormous.

Democrats are nervous. A race many of them thought was a lock just a few weeks ago is now a dead heat, the momentum with the other side.

Poll of polls: Race all knotted up

Republicans are upbeat, seeing a chance to not only build on the battleground state progress made as a result of the first debate, but also possibilities to expand the fight into states long thought safe in the Obama basket, Michigan and Pennsylvania chief among them.

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The timing adds to the stakes: The Hofstra debate is three weeks to Election Day, so close to the finish that every decision about TV ad spending and candidate travel time is consequential.

Admittedly mixing metaphors, a top Romney strategist described the race this way: "Jump ball, but with a little breeze at our back."

What's behind Romney's rise in the polls?

GOP pollster Whit Ayres listed this as his prime goal: "That Romney continues to look like someone independents would be comfortable having in their living rooms for the next four years.

"If Romney becomes an acceptable alternative to independents, and he took huge strides in that direction on October 3, the election devolves back into a referendum on Obama," Ayres told CNN. "That's a referendum he can't win at least as of today."

Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg makes a similar point in a strategy memo he distributed in advance of the debate.

"The campaign has reached a tipping point," Greenberg wrote. "Voters are not looking for continuity but change that helps the average Joe."

Then-Sen. Barack Obama was the face of change four years ago, but he is the incumbent now and Greenberg says his talk of progress the past four years in the first debate "lost the attention of independents and unmarried women. ...Romney got the opportunity to be heard as the voice of change."

Another veteran Democratic sage, pollster Peter Hart, offers a similar warning to the president in a report on a recent focus group with a dozen swing voters in Columbus, Ohio.

The reaction to Obama's first debate showing: "It left these voters both stunned and mystified, and it caused them to give Romney a second look."

Campaigns fuss over debate moderator asking questions

On the plus side for the president, Mitt Romney still has an empathy or connection gap.

"Stepdad," is the term participants said best fit Romney if they had to imagine him as a member of their family. "Obama is the brother or the uncle, part of the family," Hart wrote.

But many of these key suburban voters came away from the first debate questioning the president's resolve for four more years.

"They need to see the fight, the inspiration, and the grittiness of Obama, which they perceive is just plain missing," Hart wrote.

And the challenge for Romney?

Hart suggests worrying less about making a personal connection with voters and more about showing them how his experience will translate into economic gains.

"These Columbus swing voters are not ready to switch on the basis of one debate, but they are open to being persuaded if Romney continues to outshine Obama," Hart said. "The stakes are now even higher for the second debate."

Obama expected to 'come out swinging'

The always colorful Hart evokes the recent ninth-inning playoff collapse of the Washington Nationals to chastise Democrats who weeks ago began debating the second term Obama cabinet lineup: "There was a bit of premature celebration going on, and one must wonder if there is a parallel with this election," Hart wrote.

The strong Romney performance in Round 1 has changed how voters set the odds for Round 2: 41% of Americans expect Obama to win; 37% expect Romney to prevail. That is according to a Pew Research Center survey, and the numbers are strikingly different from a Pew survey before the first debate in which it was Obama 51% and Romney 29% when voters were asked who would win.

Voter expectations lower for Obama in second debate

Romney made significant gains after the first debate, nationally and in key battlegrounds.

"We've not lost any of the ground we've picked up," said the top Romney strategist. "The lead is growing in North Carolina, Florida and Virginia. Tight as a tick in Ohio."

New polls also show the president with tiny leads now in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and the second debate will go a long way in shaping consequential resource decisions by both campaigns.

Both Michigan and Pennsylvania have deep blue DNA in presidential politics, and the risk for Romney is steering money into one or both and running the risk of coming up just short not only in Michigan and/or Pennsylvania but also somewhere else.

GOP pollster Ayres calls it a risk worth taking.

"If you are Team Romney you expand the map," Ayres said. "Money flows with momentum, and there will be no shortage of it if he looks like a potential winner. Romney needs multiple ways of getting to 270 (electoral votes), and expanding the map significantly increases his chances."

Top Romney advisers are waging a spirited internal debate on this question.

"Tempting, but may be mirages," one top outside adviser told CNN. Another said polling conducted after the second presidential debate would be more determinative.

The flip side of this is whether the Obama campaign needs to spend to defend states they just days ago believed were safely in their path to 270.

"No big tricks," the outside Romney adviser said of the strategy for Tuesday's debate. "We like viewers getting to see them side by side."

The same "Presidential DNA" test that makes many Republicans skeptical about making major investments in Michigan and Pennsylvania is the source of increasing optimism about the overall path to 270.

Romney is now in dead heats or better with the president in Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.

Obama carried all of those states in 2008. But all of them were Republican red for president in 2004, and all but Iowa in that list also voted Republican for president in 2000.

"If you had told us a year ago that we would be three weeks out and in a jump ball race with a personally popular president and the outcome hinged on winning states that are traditionally GOP in presidential years, we would have taken that scenario in a heartbeat," the senior Romney adviser said. "Well, here we are. This is a great election."

Five things to watch for in the debate

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