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Debate Night in America

Aired October 16, 2012 - 19:00   ET



RONALD REAGAN, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Is this the time to unleash our one-liners?

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor. Now --

BILL CLINTON, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are in the grip of a failed economic theory and this decision better be about what kind of economic theory you want.


Tell Tony Blair we're going alone. It denigrates an alliance to say we're going alone, to discount their sacrifices. You cannot lead (ph).

BARACK OBAMA, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.



WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": We're standing by for the presidential candidates and their second debate of the fall season.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "AC 360": This race could take another turn tonight just three weeks before America's choice.


ANNOUNCER: The pressure is on for a president who suffered a stinging debate loss.

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My opponent he is doing a little tap-dance at the debate the other night, trying to wiggle out of stuff he has been saying for a year.

ANNOUNCER: The expectations are high for a challenger who gained momentum from his debate win.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I got the chance to ask the president some questions that people across the country have wanted to ask the president.

ANNOUNCER: In this razor-close presidential debate, every word, every gesture, every moment counts.


OBAMA: I had five seconds before he interrupted me.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney return to the debate stage. This time, undecided voters will ask questions, along with CNN's Candy Crowley.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: The purpose of the debate is to get beyond what people have already heard.

ANNOUNCER: In this high-stakes (INAUDIBLE) look for the candidates to come out swinging.

OBAMA: Governor Romney plans to let Wall Street run wild again but he's bringing the hammer down on "Sesame Street".

ROMNEY: You had to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving "Big Bird".

ANNOUNCER: Now, CNN's coverage of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, debating challenges abroad --

OBAMA: And we'll remind the world why the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth.

ANNOUNCER: And challenges at home.

ROMNEY: I will keep America strong and our homes and our economy.

ANNOUNCER: The election is closer. The race is tighter. And America's future is up for debate.


BLITZER: This is Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, the site of tonight's debate. The second go-round between President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney could be more lively and more informative than the first. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world to "Debate Night in America." I'm Wolf Blitzer.

The big question right now, will the president be more aggressive in taking on his opponent after what he calls a bad night on the debate stage two weeks ago? CNN's chief political correspondent Candy Crowley is the moderator tonight. It's a town hall-style debate, and uncommitted voters are in the audience. Some of them will get to ask the candidates questions about foreign and domestic policy.

Of course the candidates' wives will be in the audience, as well. We have exclusive interviews with both Michelle Obama and Ann Romney. The first lady talks about her daughters and how they influence the campaign's message.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: This election couldn't be more important for women on so many different issues. It's not just about me, but I'm thinking about Malia and Sasha. I'm thinking about our girls and our daughters and our granddaughters.


BLITZER: Ann Romney opens up about the worst part of campaigning.


ANN ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S WIFE: It's difficult to be separated from my husband a lot. It's difficult for me not to be there for my grandchildren's birthdays, but it's all worth it.


BLITZER: Stand by for our interviews with Michelle Obama and Ann Romney. But right now we're mobilizing the full resources of CNN for our debate coverage. Let's bring in my colleague Anderson Cooper -- Anderson.

COOPER: Wolf, during the debate, we are going to in real-time take a look at the candidates to see how long they get to talk overall and about each specific issue. We'll also get immediate reaction to what they're saying from a focus group of undecided voters. Now their responses will look like that on the bottom of your screen while the candidates are talking the lines, going up and down. Let's go to the debate hall and check in with CNN's Soledad O'Brien -- Soledad.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, thank you. We're at the David Mac (ph) Sports Complex. This is a massive complex. It seats roughly 5,000 people but tonight there are about 1,000 people in this hall. A couple of different audiences I want to kind of walk you through. Behind me, those 82 uncommitted voters, they've actually been sequestered. They're held in back. We don't have a chance to talk to them before this debate begins. There is sort of a wall around them.

That's what's going to happen, the focus of tonight. But on the other side of our cameras, that direction, we have roughly 900 people who will have a chance to watch that town hall happening right in front of them. And, of course, you also have the television audience, the audience up there, 300 Hofstra students who entered a lottery of 6,500. They feel very lucky that they're here tonight -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, lucky indeed. Soledad, we'll check in with you shortly. The presidential race tightened obviously after the first Obama-Romney debate. Our John King is at the "Magic Wall" looking at the state of the race right now tonight -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, no question debate number one was a race-changer. Governor Romney now has momentum in Nevada, in Colorado, in the swing states of Ohio and Iowa. He has momentum in Virginia and North Carolina. He has momentum in Florida, as well. Why does the Romney campaign think that is so important? Not only are they toss-up states in this campaign, but if you go back, 2008 was a Democratic year. President Obama won them all then. In tougher years, these states have Republican -- look at that -- that's all of them -- in 2004 all but Iowa voted Republican in the year 2000. The Romney campaign believes if he can keep the momentum from debate number one through debate two, he enters the final three weeks with the advantage in a race where President Obama has long held the poll position -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John, thank you. Let's go behind the scenes of the president's debate preparations and his strategy for avoiding the mistakes he made last time. Our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is over at the spin room at Hofstra University. What are you learning, Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama spent some time today doing some last-minute debate prep and then he spent some downtime here on Long Island with some friends and having a steak and potato dinner with the first lady. That's what the campaign tells us. But he is aware that he needs to make some significant changes tonight, compared to his performance in Denver 13 days ago. The way he and his aides see it, we're told, Wolf, is that it's really more about style changes than it is substance changes. Aides tell us he's ready to up his game tonight in this pivotal moment in his campaign.


KEILAR (voice-over): Campaign sources tell CNN President Obama has dedicated more time practicing his debate delivery. After reviewing tape of his first debate multiple times, he is focused on being assertive, yet optimistic.

ROBERT GIBBS, OBAMA CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: He also knew as he's watched the tape of that debate that he's got to be more energetic.

KEILAR: At debate camp in Williamsburg, Virginia, the presidents' days were long and structured, a morning workout and then breakfast. Debate prep began around 10:00 in the main building of the Kings Mill Resort (ph) where President Obama spent hours with advisers practicing possible questions the town hall audience or moderator may ask tonight. He broke for a quick lunch, then more prep. After an early dinner, he returned for a 90-minute mock debate. The president worked until 10:00 or 10:30 each night, his team longer, before starting again the next day, the goal, to avoid this.

ROMNEY: Look, I've been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you're talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant. But the idea that you get a break for shipping jobs overseas is simply not the case.

KEILAR: Obama missed multiple opportunities to challenge Mitt Romney. But tonight campaign sources say look for him to address Governor Romney's prime weaknesses. His 47 percent comments, his business tenure at Bain Capital, and his lack of specifics on his tax plan.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we're saying --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: More people signed up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are from your own --


KEILAR: As Joe Biden debated Paul Ryan last week, President Obama watched CNN from a conference room aboard Air Force One, along with six aides. A source in the room tells CNN this exchange got a reaction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love my friend here! I'm not allowed to show letters, but go on our Web site. He sent me two letters saying, by the way, can you send me some stimulus money for companies here in the state of Wisconsin?

KEILAR: That was pretty good, Obama said, according to the source. Don't expect Obama to emulate Biden's in-your-face style, aides say, but he's got a team making sure he presents a different face. David Axelrod and David Plouffe, Bob Barnett (ph) who sparred with Bill Clinton in his debate preps, playing the role of CNN debate moderator Candy Crowley is Anita Dunn, former White House communications director and still in the role of Mitt Romney, Senator John Kerry. Kerry saw firsthand how a president up for re-election can come back. In 2004, he bested President George W. Bush in their first tangle. Bush looked annoyed and dismissive. When they met at their town hall style debate, Bush poked fun at himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That answer almost made me want to scowl.

KEILAR: And eventually won re-election. In 1984, even the great communicator, Ronald Reagan, bombed his first debate against Walter Mondale. He seemed confused. Observers wondered if he was too old. Round two, Reagan dominated with this memorable line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.



(END VIDEOTAPE) KEILAR: So how is President Obama prepared to be more assertive? I asked an aide if perhaps John Kerry hadn't been a little more aggressive, gotten in the president's face during debate prep. I was told yes, he did, but that he had also done that in debate prep ahead of the Denver debate. The difference, an aide told me, is really that President Obama is much more aware this time of how he is perceived by viewers who are watching on television -- Anderson.

COOPER: Brianna, thanks very much. We'll check in with you. Let's talk to our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, senior political analyst David Gergen and our own John King. John just in terms of poll numbers where the race is, you showed us a little bit before, who was really -- who changed their mind from the last presidential debate? I mean why have we seen this huge shift?

KING: There are several pieces of it. One is and the Democrats try to write this off as all of it, is you had Republicans who became dispirited after their convention, the Democratic Convention kind of drifted away. Republicans and lean Republicans who describe they're independents who are really Republicans. They came home. And the Republicans now have them and there is no indication they're going to go anywhere. So Governor Romney has his full base back. But, but and this is the warning sign for the Democrats, Governor Romney also made some important gains among suburbanites, including women, which is a warning sign to the president. He hasn't completely closed the gender gap, but he's made it tighter. And people who identify themselves as independents who are not lean Republicans, who are more true independents and that is the challenge. And why, if you look at smart Democrats who have done focus group and polling on this, they think a lot of people saw no fight in the president and they think if you won't fight Mitt Romney, how are you going to fight for me?


COOPER: So who then is President Obama trying to win back tonight or really send a message to tonight? Because we heard Michelle Obama in that interview with CNN, talking about how important this race is for women, and she thinks about her girls in this.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think she -- I think they are trying to bring back sort of the fringes of people who have not decided whether they're women minorities (INAUDIBLE) they've got to get some white voters back. They want to get 40 percent of the white vote, 80 percent of the minority vote. But I must say I think the big surprise to me was how much bleeding Obama did after the first debate. We've seen president's lose that first debate before, but I don't think any of us anticipated just how much it would hurt him.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well this support was soft. And I think this is where -- with women, in particular.

GERGEN: Yes. Yes, there's been a big swing back and forth --

BORGER: And I think that the Romney people are going to make a play tonight to keep those women, particularly suburban women, married women, and let them know that their candidate is not as extreme as the president would portray him as, except that the president is going to say, OK, he has no core. And he has no set of beliefs and you can't trust what he says --

COOPER: Well if --

BORGER: -- because he flip-flops --

COOPER: But if the numbers were soft for President Obama -- because before the narrative of the first debate was how far in the lead President Obama was. If that support was soft, is the support that's now attributed to Romney, is that soft too?

KING: Yes.


KING: Yes, people have agreed to give him a second look. They haven't locked in yet. This is where the president's challenge is huge tonight, but there is a fundamental change in the dynamic of the race because the president had the baton. He had made the race about Governor Romney. He spent millions of dollars demonizing Governor Romney. You have an incumbent president who pulled off the magic act of making the race about his challenger, not about him and his four- year record. That's gone now. He's the president of the United States who in the first debate (INAUDIBLE) these are from smart Democrats, not Republicans who say he didn't tell anybody anything he was going to do in a second term. He didn't say here's what I did wrong in the first term. Here's what I'll do to be better in the second term. He just defended the last four years. If he keeps looking in the rear-view mirror, he'll be a former president.

COOPER: A Romney debate coach is revealing what the Republicans need to do differently this time and our Candy Crowley on her debate secret and her history making turn as moderator. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Well heading into tonight's presidential debate, Mitt Romney knew that he couldn't stick with the same strategy he had two weeks ago. Sure he was considered the winner of his first face-off with President Obama, but the challenge tonight is different and certainly the format is very different. Dana Bash is in the debate hall. Dana, what have you learned tonight about Romney's preparations this time?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well Anderson, we're told that they have practiced to such a level of detail that he even was preparing how he sits and there is a good reason for that. He is going to be sitting on a bar stool and Mitt Romney is a Mormon. So he doesn't spend a lot of time on bar stools, according to his aides, because he doesn't drink. It is that kind of focus on the style and in addition to the substance that has made this preparation different from the last time.


BASH (voice-over): At campaign rallies, Mitt Romney has got new mojo.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our campaign is about bigger and bigger crowds fighting for a bright future.

BASH: Behind the scenes, he's been working hard to keep his momentum going. Since the first presidential debate, Romney spent five out of 13 days, nearly half, prepping for his second encounter with the president tonight. His core group of about half a dozen aides traveling with him everywhere, Florida to Ohio to Boston, practicing with mock debates, honing Romney's performance in style and substance. GOP sources tell CNN that Senator Rob Portman, who plays the role of President Obama in mock debates, has barely left Romney's side.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mitt Romney made us proud last week and he's going to do it again this week!


BASH: Getting him ready for what Romney aides expect will be a very aggressive president, trying to make up for his much-criticized performance last week. In an exclusive interview with CNN, Portman explained how he tries to thicken the Republican candidate's skin.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: Your job, in preparing someone, of course, is to be so tough that when they get up there in the debate they feel about halfway through, gosh, this isn't so bad.

BASH (on camera): Yes, it's not new.

PORTMAN: Yes, I'm glad it's not Portman.

BASH (voice-over): GOP sources say Romney's prep for tonight's debate, a town hall, is different.

ROMNEY: Mr. President, you're entitled as a president to own your own airplane and to your own house but not to your own facts --

BASH: Instead of coaching hem to focus intently on the president like he did last time, this time aides want him to turn his attention to the audience member asking the question. Make a connection.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The big thing is remember the audience.

BASH: Brett O'Donnell prepped Romney for debates earlier this year during the GOP primaries. He also helped John McCain get ready for his town hall against Obama four years ago. Why is the audience so key?

(on camera): What does that get Governor Romney when he does that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well because when people see that, then they know he cares. They know that it's not just about policy, it's not just about position, it is about the people. BASH (voice-over): GOP sources say that's especially important for Romney, who is working hard to shed an out-of-touch image. They want Romney to avoid awkward missteps like this when George H.W. Bush could not answer how the recession affected him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On a personal basis, how has it affected you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Has it affected you personally?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well I'm sure it has. I love my grandchildren. I want to --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not sure I get it. Help me with the question and I'll try to answer it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to have two more --

BASH: Romney's old debate coach reviewed with us the first presidential face-off with Obama, his best and worst moments. Best, his closing statement.

ROMNEY: Is election about the course of America? What kind of America do you want to have for yourself and for your children?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's very effective. He stole the president's vocabulary. They had been using the language of the two paths.

BASH: Worst? This fumble.

ROMNEY: Neither the president nor I are proposing any changes for any current retirees or near-retirees, either to Social Security or Medicare. Oh, I just thought about one. And that is, in fact I was wrong. When I said the president isn't proposing any changes for current retirees. In fact, he is, on Medicare. On Social Security, he's not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is an example of probably the governor's weakest moment in the debate. You want to think of a maybe smoother transition than to just say, oops, I forgot. You know here's what I should have said.


BASH: And one of the things that people may not realize about the format about this -- of this town hall is something that you, Soledad, pointed out just a few moments ago, which is that there is what some people are calling the fake audience, the people down there who are asking the questions. And then there are the people who are coming to actually watch, the real audience, who are sitting up here with us. And when it comes to preparing the candidates, what these coaches are saying is that they have to really make sure that they're focused on the people down there who are going to ask the questions, because if they don't, if they kind of look up into the rafters, they will look uncomfortable, they will look awkward, and there will be a disconnect. And that actually happened with Al Gore back in 2000.

O'BRIEN: Right. We've seen it in the past. So besides sort of teaching you how to sit on a stool so you don't look awkward, how do they teach them to deal with someone here, but really get a message out to here and then of course the folks who are watching on television?

BASH: Well what I was told by people who are involved in Romney's prep in particular is that they really drove home with him to be aware of how he relates to the voter who is asking the question. Maybe not to get too close so that in the words of one source he's up in their grill or too far away that it would look awkward, which is the opposite of what he wants. So those are the things that he really has to be aware of and also the president you know is going to be here walking around, maybe not sitting still. It is really just understanding his surroundings that it's not just him and the president sitting at a podium.

O'BRIEN: (INAUDIBLE) also trying to answer the question and talk to the audience, the American audience --

BASH: Exactly --

O'BRIEN: All right, Dana, thank you.

BASH: Thanks.

O'BRIEN: Let's send it right back to Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot easier said than done, to be sure, guys. Thank you. Michelle Obama is talking about the president's ego in our exclusive interview and we'll also hear from our own Candy Crowley who is backstage right now at the debate. First, this debate flashback.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have a question right here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. How has the national debt --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When George Bush got caught looking at his watch, it looked like he was bored, that he didn't care about the debate. And that underscored the feeling that he wasn't connected to the problems of the people in the country. And he later said when he was looking at his watch, he was thinking, I hate these debates. I'm so glad it's almost over. It became an emblem of the fact that he wasn't engaged fully enough in what was happening to the people of the country, even if that was not true.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: Welcome back to our coverage of "Debate Night in America". Governor Romney and President Obama are gearing up for their second debate begins in just a little while with three weeks only until the election. Just three weeks left. This campaign is not getting any easier for the candidates or for their wives. We've got portions off our exclusive interviews tonight with Michelle Obama and Ann Romney you haven't seen before. Our Gloria Borger asks Mrs. Romney about how tough it is out on that campaign trail.


A. ROMNEY: I think the hardest part for me is being away from my husband a lot. For me it's being on the road all of the time. There is a good and a bad side of running a campaign, but for me it's difficult never to be home. It's difficult to be separated from my husband a lot. It's difficult for me not to be there for my grandchildren's birthdays, but it's all worth it. I mean it's all -- an extraordinary experience on top of that and it's definitely something I believe in with all my heart. I believe every single day I'm making a difference. That I'm making people see Mitt in a different light and see him as a person that cares and a person that's competent.

BORGER: It's been a long campaign, as you pointed out earlier. You've been through the primaries, and there have been mistakes along the way. How tough is your husband on himself?

A. ROMNEY: No one is ever going to run a perfect campaign and no one is ever going to be perfect. But you're going to get up the next morning and you're going to just keep fighting and that's where we are right now. We're just going to fight and we're just going to go forward.


COOPER: Gloria Borger joins us now. It's really interesting, Gloria, to see her evolution on the campaign trail.


COOPER: Early on in the primary season, she wasn't really out in front and she started to introduce him at events and now she's out campaigning on her own.

BORGER: It's really amazing when you go back to 2008, because she made a video for him, a home video that said "You cannot do this again" after he lost. I will not be a part of it. Then she decided she did want to be a part of it and she was reluctant at first and now I would say she is one of his chief surrogates. Clearly, as we were talking about before, women voters, very important. She has been an important part of the campaign. I also think she weighs in on tactics once in a while. And I think she is very involved with just about everything in this campaign and she has been an important part of it.

GERGEN: She not only changed her mind about whether he would run, she told me that she talked him into it. She was the one who talked him into it and he independently verified that.


GERGEN: So she -- I think it's -- it's hard to describe just how important she is to him.

COOPER: Right. We're going to have more on that interview. You can see more of it throughout this evening tonight. Let's go now to our exclusive interview with Michelle Obama. Wolf, you've got that.

BLITZER: That's right, Anderson, and her husband certainly looking for a debate comeback tonight. Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin asked the first lady about the times when the president needs a reality check.


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Some aides say that you're the one person who can keep his ego in check. Is that true?

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: You know, Barack doesn't have a big ego. You know, that's the thing. I mean, he is -- you know, you see this in how he leads the country. I mean, he is very open to other people's opinions. And he's always willing to compromise and he is always, always listening, you know?

So that would kind of be the last thing that I would think of when I talk about my husband as big ego, because he just doesn't have that. So it's not much to check.

YELLIN (voice-over): She got back up from her brother Craig, who coaches basketball at Oregon State.

CRAIG ROBINSON, MICHELLE OBAMA'S BROTHER: One of the first things I saw on the basketball court was his lack of ego. You know, he -- the game wasn't about him, it was about the game, and it was about his teammates. And so, I don't think there's an ego to put in check.

YELLIN (on camera): Hard to believe about a president of the United States.

OBAMA: Not this one.



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jessica is joining us now.

Jessica, that's a pretty hard thing to believe. What do you make of that?

YELLIN: Well, you know, with the campaign in the final stretch, everyone on their team is trying to stay on message, and that extends to the first lady and obviously to her brother. So she was a supportive spouse from beginning to end.

You know, the president was interviewed recently by Diane Sawyer after his first debate, and he said that Mrs. Obama, his wife, is his most honest critic. But in that same interview, she also told me that she never offers him criticism. She only offers positive, constructive feedback.

So, she was very much on message. She did not want to say anything that would in any way trip him up, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm not surprised by that. Jessica, good work. By the way, we're going to have the interview, Jessica's interview in our next hour. You're going to want to stick around and see that.

Anderson, you know, both of these candidates are blessed with wonderful, wonderful wives, huge assets in their campaigns, especially when it comes to attracting that critically important women's vote out there.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, they certainly are. And also evidenced that the spin isn't just in the spin room, it's also out on the campaign trail.

Does anybody believe that somebody can become president of the United States without having a very healthy or strong ego?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think that's another thing that's perfect about Barack Obama is that he has no ego. So, no -- of course, he's -- everybody is trying not to make a mistake near the end of the debate and start any kind of controversy or story that would travel about the president, or Mitt Romney being an egotist.

Look, we have two interesting men who are somewhat distant from voters. And it's interesting that best way to see them is through the eyes of the women they married. That really is kind of the window into who both of these men are.

COOPER: It is interesting, as you said, they are kind of just inherently -- they're not huggers. And yet that is now the position that they are in, in order to win over those who have yet to decide. They have really got to go out there.

VAN JONES, FORMER OBAMA SPECIAL ADVISOR: And that's not outside of Obama's skill set. I mean, he is a -- he's somewhat removed.

CASTELLANOS: He is very good at hugging. Very skillful.

JONES: But, you know, it is a strange thing where now in this situation where, you know, I'm sure Mitt Romney is getting coaching on hugging and whatever.

But here's what's true about Obama -- when he drops into the moment and he's there with somebody, he doesn't have to go into his brain, he has gone through the life of a lot of people who are ordinary, middle class, working class folks. He himself had student loans, they're going to be right there on the college campus with kids about to graduate off a cliff with massive student loans. He can't -- he doesn't have to work that hard at it.

COOPER: But it's interesting, I mean, I remember reading his book and I don't want to misquote the passage. But he describes the ease with which he found he could kind of mobilize a crowd and he almost resisted at times. He almost kind of becomes uncomfortable with his ability to -- I don't want to say manipulate, but to get a crowd on its feet.

I think there is a part of his brain which that's not really who he is.

JONES: But I think that inner conflict is a part of his charisma. You don't get the impression that he's some sort of a manipulator. You get the impression that he believes what he says and he is somebody who has come through a life that has put him in contact with people of all colors, all classes and has a point of view.

And I think that what he's got to be able to do tonight, he's got to remind people why he set the world on fire. And he's got to remind people that he is somebody who has walked in their shoes and wants the future -- to your point, you said this over and over again. The future that Barack Obama wants for this country is something he's got to get back on message.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Is there a huge risk in that? Ari has been around presidents up for reelection, if he reminds people what he was four years ago, can't Romney say, what about creating jobs, what about changing Washington?


JONES: I think he can do very well there.

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Here's the big issue about performing on a stage like this on a night like tonight. It's real. That's what I like about the presidential level. It's different from the governor level, the Senate level, the congressional level, where ads can create your image.

In a presidential, it comes down to who you are and you have to wear it well. And if the president is that aloof, hard-to-connect- with people president and he can't come across, it will show. Same thing with Mitt Romney. The camera does catch it and people watch it on the presidential level.

DEE DEE MYERS, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No question about it. And we've all seen Barack Obama move and stir huge crowds and move people to tears over and over and over again.

What tonight is about, though, is not speaking, it's listening. And I think the people that misunderstand sometimes about Barack Obama is he can listen. He refuses to fake authenticity, right? And so, I think when he gets into a situation, he can listen, and when he does, and when he connects, people will know it's genuine. That will be very powerful. CASTELLANOS: Let's also do not forget, though, that this debate tonight, it is not about all hugging. You know, there is a reason Barack Obama chose the strategy he did, initially, which is to disqualify Mitt Romney.

He didn't have a vision about going forward. That was -- he said I've done the best I can, let's wait for the economy to get better.

Tonight, people are not looking just for the warm sky. They want a hammer that can drive a nail. They want somebody who can fix this economy.

MYERS: They want somebody who understands their life.

CASTELLANOS: There's substance here.

MYERS: And that takes listening and saying I get it. And that's what voters will be looking for.

CASTELLANOS: That alone is not enough though.

MYERS: Do you get it? Do I get it? Do I have a plan to fix it?

FLEISCHER: It's not only the public and the audience he has to listen to. He has to listen to his opponent, which he didn't do the first debate. He looked away, he scoffed at him, he couldn't look him in the eye. He's got to be able to take Mitt Romney's points and rebut them with substance and specifics.


COOPER: What kind of rebuttals are we seeing? We saw Joe Biden's version of it which was point by point, moment by moment jump in there, that's not President Obama.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't think he needs to be -- try to be the old Obama. People look for him to be a more mature Obama.

I want to go back to what Dee Dee has been saying all evening. What he has not done, he's been able to describe the past. He has not described the future in a compelling way.

And what he needs is a story tonight. Here's where we started, here's where we are and here's where we're going. And he's got to keep doing that.

KING: He's opened the door for Governor Romney. Governor Romney is not even -- neither one of these guys is Bill Clinton and Governor Romney is probably not as much about making connection as Barack Obama.

But he's opened the door to Governor Romney to say, you like him as your economy, I can fix it, I will get you to a better place. I might not be your best friend, but I will be your best president.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Obama can't be something he isn't.

MYERS: Right.

BORGER: You know, people elected no drama Obama. Suddenly this evening, you're not going to see President Obama come out and start slugging away. That's not who he is.


MYERS: One of the things Romney did so effectively was he took the question, he sort of answered it quickly and he pivoted to whatever he wanted to talk about. He was much better prepared.

Obama kept answering the question point by point by point. He can't do that again.

COOPER: While you watched the debate tonight, let's get instant reaction at That rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? And give us your take, as well.

Also, our Candy Crowley tells us what it's like to be the first woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate.

And Hillary Clinton shares her advice for the president. Right now, a debate flashback.


DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: The focus groups right after Al Gore and Bush debated seemed to give a slight edge to Gore, because he was more articulate. He had better answers. But once the television cameras caught that sighing, it seemed to underscore him as somebody as a teacher's pet who knew all the answers, but was annoying and irritating.

And then they played it over and over again. And it became parodies on the comedy shows and late-night TV and it became devastating for him to move that down.



BLITZER: We're getting closer and closer to tonight's presidential debate rematch. You're looking at a live picture from inside the room there. People are gathering and also nearby in the so-called spin room.

That's where our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar, and national political correspondent Jim Acosta are standing by.

Brianna, first to you. Set the scene for us. I see more folks arriving there.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: There are more folks, Wolf. Of course, this is where the action will be after the debate, but you're already seeing some now.

In fact, over here, if you can see over my right shoulder, former New York Governor George Pataki surrounded by a whole scrum of reporters, as he's putting his spin, obviously, in favor of Mitt Romney tonight.

And then just to give you a look around the room. This half of this large room at Hofstra University that we're in dedicated to television outlets and networks. You can see they have their various booths so the Democratic and Republican surrogates can come and do interviews afterwards.

And then across the room, the other half of the room, dedicated to radio reporters, print reporters, bloggers, hundreds of them, including from the foreign press here tonight.

This is the spin room, already slowly swirling, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is your head getting dizzy yet, Brianna, or are you still OK?

KEILAR: It will.

BLITZER: I know, get ready.

Jim Acosta in the spin room, as well, a different location.

Where are you, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. I'm also in the spin room, same room that Brianna is in right now, but to give you a sort of different vantage point.

Wanted to show this wide view of what's going on in here right now. And, Wolf, I have to tell you, if this debate were a washing machine, it would have two spin cycles, one before the debate, one after the debate.

And what's been notable so far, Wolf, we've seen more Democratic surrogates coming into this spin room than Republican surrogates before the debate. We got caught up with John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, who is involved in these debates eight years ago. About an hour ago, a huge gaggle of reporters had gathered around him, and he was tearing into Mitt Romney's record in Massachusetts, calling it a charade, when Mitt Romney talks about bipartisanship during his days as governor of Massachusetts.

Wolf, he also got into the subject of Libya, and Hillary Clinton's comments yesterday, that she takes responsibility for what happened in Benghazi. I asked John Kerry, I said, "Doesn't the buck stop with the president?" He said the president is also taking responsibility for what happened in Libya. We have not heard that from the president yet. Perhaps we will hear that later this evening.

But, Wolf, the number of Democrats coming into this room I think is a sign that the president is going to be more aggressive later on this evening.

We also had a chance to hear from Ohio Senator Rob Portman. He was talking about the stylistic differences we might see between President Obama two weeks ago and what we might see tonight. He said President Obama's problem is not style, it's substance, Wolf.

BLITZER: He's got to be more aggressive tonight than the first time, otherwise, he's going to be in deep, deep trouble. Jim, thank you.

CNN's chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley, is the first woman in 20 years to be chosen to moderate a presidential debate. But she says it took a while for that to sink in.

She spoke to us about her role in political history.


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I was in my office, and I got a phone call from the executive director of the Presidential Debate Commission who said, "We were wondering if you would be willing to moderate a debate." And I said, "Let me just think -- yes."

They told me not to tell anyone. So that was in some ways the hardest part. I cheated, I told my children. But beyond that, I didn't tell anybody.

And so, it was -- it was just this weird sort of Cheshire cat thing going on, because I knew something that other people didn't know. But I mean, inside I was thinking, whoa. This is amazing. I mean, for a journalist, does it get better than that? Not much better that I can think.

People say, oh, do you think you're going to ask a different question because you're female? And I think, I'm going to ask different questions because of all the things that I am.

Bob Schieffer and I are different. Jim Lehrer and I are different. We come from different backgrounds. We have different experiences.

And certainly, one of the differences between them and me is that I'm female and they're male. So, that's a part of it.

So I guess I didn't embrace the history of it as -- until women started -- and by the way, men, as well. I mean, my -- I have just sons. And they were thrilled and said, "Mom, did you know, you know, you're the first woman in 20 years?" So they were excited by it.

What is different about this debate is that it's also -- it's a town hall meeting. So there will be folks there that have been selected as not having made up their minds. So they bring to the table their worries. And so, I think there are a lot of elements here that make room for surprises.

And if you look back over the history of debates, there's usually always one.

I am hoping that the 25 years that I've covered politics has prepared me and given me the base for this.


CROWLEY: But Monday morning quarterbacking is no more effective in politics than in football.

What worries this campaign is the right to sit things out.


CROWLEY: Can I tell you how awesome this is? It's completely awesome. I mean, I think that I -- I never thought about it ahead of time in terms of, oh, well, I might get a debate. I didn't think then.

And so, to have it happen is just -- I don't know. It's a career highlight, what can I say?


BLITZER: Candy is going to do an amazing, amazing job. And after the debate, we're going to be speaking to her, as well. You'll want to stick around for that.

Town hall style debates, like the one tonight, are a relatively new part of presidential campaigns. And as we heard, style sometimes can be just as important as substance.

Let's go over to John King at the magic wall. You've been looking at some of the best and worst of these kinds of town hall formats.

KING: Relatively new in terms of debates, but candidates do it all the time. So we went back through history, trying to study for a little bit. This is actually a question from the last town hall debate, and you think going in, the candidates have to be nimble. Sometimes they're surprised.


TOM BROKAW, DEBATE MODERATOR: We've come to the last question. And you'll both be interested to know, this comes from the Internet and it's from a state that you're strongly contesting, both of you. It's from Peggy in Amherst, New Hampshire. It has a certain Zen-like quality, I'll give you fair warning.

She says, what don't you know, and how will you learn it?

Senator Obama, you get first crack at that.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My wife, Michelle is there. And she could give you a much longer list than I do. And most of the time I learn it by asking her. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So the president took a Zen-like question, as Tom Brokaw said, and made it a personal moment with his wife. Sometimes in a town hall you get questions you might not expect, like when you call on a child.


UNIDENTIFIED KID: What's your view on abortion?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's a question I did not expect from you, but I'm happy to (INAUDIBLE). I am -- I am pro- life. I am pro-life, and what I would like to see happen -- you know, this is a tender and sensitive issue.


KING: Interesting to see Governor Romney there -- this is during the primaries, he said he was pro-life but then a tender and sensitive issue. Watch if abortion comes up tonight. There he was talking to a child.

Here's a case where he might have regretted how he handled this one.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Could you help me understand why you oppose the use of birth control?

ROMNEY: I don't.


ROMNEY: I'm sorry. Life begins at conception. Birth control prevents conception.


KING: Very awkward moment there, including the governor's laugh, to a very sensitive question there.

This is a famous moment. Most people will remember. This is President Obama in a town hall just before the 2010 elections where the Republicans, of course, had the big landslide, the president face to face with a critical voter.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Quite frankly, I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration. My husband and I joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives.

OBAMA: You describe exactly what is the bedrock of America, you know, a veteran who's working for veterans, somebody who's a CFO and I am sure knows how to manage their money, that made good decisions. I'm not saying once in a while you don't want to get a new pair of shoes, you know?


KING: An answer there from the president got some laughter, but a lot of critics said he did not make a connection there especially early on with that voter.

And here's sometimes you might say it's hard to relate.


ROMNEY: I can tell my story, I'm also unemployed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you on LinkedIn?

ROMNEY: And I'm networking.


KING: Very interesting moment there, Wolf. A lot of people laugh. Governor Romney was trying to make a joke. He's a very wealthy man, doesn't have a job at the moment campaigning, he says, "I'm employed", some people laugh. Other people, of course, thought what a horrible thing for a very wealthy man to say at a time when millions of Americans are out there struggling with no jobs.

It tells you a lot about politics, though, that some people see things through their own prism.

BLITZER: My advice to the politicians, leave the jokes to the comedians. You're in dangerous territory when you think you're going to be funny.

KING: Amen.

BLITZER: John, thank you.

Our focus group of undecided voters will give us the first read on who wins tonight. They're about to tell us what they want to hear. And Ann Romney on the subject she and her husband try to avoid. All that and right now, a debate flashback.


GOODWIN: I think there was no more brilliant closing than Reagan's.

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

GOODWIN: It became a theme encapsulated in a few sentences.

REAGAN: Is there more or less unemployment in the country? GOODWIN: What it did was make people realize, yes, that's what happened to me and it can probably be said by lots of people at various times in history.



BLITZER: Live pictures of the debate hall. Folks eventually will start getting in there, but it's a little bit early. We're watching all of it unfolds.

Once again, tonight as the debate is under way, as the debate is underway, our focus group of undecided voters will offer the first verdict on who's doing well and who's perhaps struggling.

CNN's Erin Burnett is with our focus in a critical swing state of Ohio.

Erin, set the scene for us, tell our viewers what the folks that you're with are going to be doing tonight?

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, CNN'S "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT": That's right. And I got to say, Wolf, so far, this is our third focus group, third debate here. And the focus groups have been spot on. Their instant analysis of who did better has been right so far in the first two debates. So, we'll see how they do tonight.

But the folks here are from around the Columbus area in Ohio, we're at Ohio State. And again, I want you to know, for those of you who are not familiar with what we're doing. The professors at SMU have set up these dials. And these dials, they're basically going to rate, do you like what they're saying? Do you not like?

These are the squiggly line that you're going to see at the bottom of your screen throughout the debate. So you can watch that and then you're going to hear what our voters have to say.

Now, let me tell you, Wolf, how we're coming in here tonight. In the last election, 27 of the people here in this focus group, 34 of them, were voting, voted for Barack Obama and 7 for John McCain. So, you may say, oh, OK, it's Democratic.

Well, no, not so fast. This is very much up for grabs. Tonight coming in before the debate, half of them said they would vote for the president, and half would vote for Romney, but they are uncommitted. So they could change their minds. And this really shows you, one pollster said, what Florida was to 2000, will be Ohio to the year 2012.

And let me leave with this, Wolf, how many of you are satisfied right now, happy with the direction the country is going in?

There are a few hands.

How many are dissatisfied? And that's really, Wolf, what you need to know. This is the third focus group that said that. They could vote for Romney. They could vote for Obama. But their voters are still up for grabs in the most important state perhaps in the country.

Back to you.

BLITZER: Anxious to hear what they'll say, Erin. Thank you.

We also had a group of undecided voters rate the first Obama- Romney debate when the president admits he had a bad night. Let's take a look at the results then. We measured the reaction of undecided Colorado voters as they listen to the candidates, the green line represents the men, the yellow line is for women.

We're showing you the candidates' debate low points that drive home the moments that did not play well with undecided voters. First, President Obama's -- his low point came at around 9:18 when he was talking about taxes and seemed to take a dig at Governor Romney. Watch this.


OBAMA: For 18 months he's been running on this tax plan, and now five weeks before the election, he's saying that his big bold idea is never mind. And the fact is that, if you are lowering the rates the way you describe, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It's math. It's arithmetic.


BLITZER: That was the president's lowest moment.

Governor Romney's low point happened about halfway through the debate. At around 9:43, when he talked about cuts to entitlements.


ROMNEY: But on Medicare, for current retirees, he's cutting $716 billion from the program, now he says by not overpaying hospitals and providers. Actually, just going to them and saying we're going to reduce the rates you get paid across the board, everybody is going to get a lower rate. That's not just going after places where there's abuse, that's saying we're cutting the rates. Some 15 percent of hospitals and nursing home say they won't take anymore Medicare patients under that scenario.


BLITZER: We showed you Governor Romney and President Obama's low points. They each by the way had one low point for the first debate. As for the high points, the focus group favored Romney, he said seven high points during the debate, while Obama had only four.

CNN's debate coverage continues right now.