Washington — Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were closeted with advisers on Sunday preparing for the second presidential debate, a confrontation in which the president hopes to rebound from a lacklustre performance in their first face-to-face session and the Republican challenger will be looking to ride the momentum that shows him pulling even in the hard fought campaign for the White House.
The Tuesday debate falls just three weeks before the 6 November election, voting that finds Americans separated by a deep partisan rift as the US economy struggles to bounce back from the Great Recession and near financial collapse that was bequeathed to Obama when he took office in January 2009. Polls show the laggard economy and still-high unemployment remain the top issue in voters' minds.
Obama was huddling with advisers at a sprawling riverfront resort in Williamsburg, Virginia. Romney retreated to his Boston-area home, where the Republican nominee worked to further hone his commanding performance in the first debate nearly two weeks ago.
While the debates have proved critical, they are one element in larger campaigns that involve extensive ground games in virtually every state across the nation and a television ad war that may consume $1bn before Election Day. As of Monday, either absentee or in-person early voting has begun in 43 states.
Obama was working on more pointed and aggressive methods to target Romney for what the president's campaign views as the former Massachusetts governor's willingness to shift his positions to make them more palatable for voters.
"Governor Romney has been making pitches all of his life," Obama spokesperson Jennifer Psaki said of the businessman-turned-Republican nominee.
"He knows how to say what people want to hear whether that was during his time at Bain or during the dozens of town halls he did during the primary," she added, referring to the private equity fund Romney used to run.
Ed Gillespie, senior adviser to the Romney campaign, quipped that the former Massachusetts governor would be prepared in the upcoming debate regardless of Obama's adjustments: "The president can change his style. He can change his tactics. He can't change his record. "
Romney's advisers suggested the Republican nominee would continue to moderate his message — in tone, if not substance — as he did in the 3 October debate to help broaden his appeal to the narrow slice of undecided voters.
In recent days, Romney has promised his tax plan would not benefit the wealthy, emphasised his work with Democrats as Massachusetts governor and downplayed plans to strengthen the nation's abortion laws.
He told an Iowa newspaper this week, for example, that he would not pursue abortion-related legislation if elected.
That's in direct conflict with last year's pledge to the anti-abortion group, the Susan B Anthony List, to cut federal funding from Planned Parenthood and support legislation to "protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion".
"I think Mitt Romney's performance was, indeed, magical and theatrical. Magical and theatrical largely because for 90 minutes he walked away from a campaign he had been running for more than six years previous to that," Obama senior campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said of the first debate.
While Romney prepped for the debate, his campaign released a new television advertisement using video images from Republican running mate Paul Ryan's debate last week with Vice President Joe Biden.
The ad, titled "Fiscal Discipline", features clips of Ryan saying the government "can't keep spending money we don't have". His comments are juxtaposed with video from the debate of Biden laughing.
The campaign did not say in which states the ad would run.
Obama's campaign released a new feel-good ad with actor Morgan Freeman's commanding voice narrating a message telling voters that Obama has met the nation's challenges and "the last thing we should do is turn back now".
Ryan and Biden were each cheered by their party's base after their debate last week. But the focus shifts back to Obama and Romney on Tuesday when they meet at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
As that debate looms large as one of the final opportunities to affect the trajectory of the race, both campaigns are working feverishly in the nine most competitive states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin — to get their core supporters to vote early and persuade undecided voters to back their candidate.
The US president is not chosen by a nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests, making swing states like Ohio which are neither reliably Republican nor Democratic important in such a tight election.
TV ads are a near constant presence, mailboxes are filled with campaign brochures and door-step visits by volunteers are picking up. Obama, Romney, their running mates, families and high-profile Democrats and Republicans are near constant presences in those states, working to tip the balance in a tight race where any factor could make a difference.
Romney's biggest challenge remains Ohio, where polls show Obama with a consistent, slight lead.
Without Ohio's 18 electoral votes, Romney would have to win nearly all the other contested states, most of which are either too close to project a winner or are leaning Obama's way, some solidly.
Given the stakes, Romney spent the past week bearing down on Ohio, campaigning there four days last week and boosting his television advertising, according to ad-spending reports provided to The Associated Press.
Ohio is proving to be tricky for Romney. The state has an unemployment rate lower than the national average and a revived energy sector built on natural gas. Also, Obama's auto bailout is popular in the state which is heavily dependent on the industry.
Plus, the president has kept his eye squarely on the state even as polls showed him in a strong position. He has visited twice this month, and plans to return in the coming week. Obama also has kept pace with Romney's Ohio ad spending.
Elsewhere, polls show the race a dead heat in Florida, the biggest prize up for grabs with 29 electoral votes, and Virginia, where Romney has posted gains over the past week. In North Carolina, polls also show the race close, although Obama has trimmed his advertising in recent weeks. Surveys show Obama leading in Wisconsin and Iowa, and very narrowly in Nevada and Colorado.
Obama aides have tried to make debate preparations a higher priority for the president this time around. Ahead of the first debate, some of Obama's practice sessions were cut short, and others cancelled all together, mainly because of developments in Libya, where four Americans were killed at a US consulate.
Aides say Obama is still dealing with those matters and others. But the urgency that led to interruptions during earlier debate preparation has subsided, and the campaign is trying to ensure that Obama stays more fully engaged in his practice sessions.