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2nd Presidential Debate Seems Pivotal But Unpredictable

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama shake hands before the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Oct. 3. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama shake hands before the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Oct. 3. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The first presidential debate was surprising, perhaps shocking. Mitt Romney exceeded the expectations of even his most loyal admirers, while President Obama disappointed many of his supporters. As a result, Tuesday’s debate looms as pivotal and unpredictable. There are more variables — odd X factors — when you try to anticipate what will happen.

How will Obama be different? After the president’s lackluster performance in the first debate, followed by his feisty campaigning the following day, it’s been assumed –- and practically promised by Obama advisers –- that we’ll see a more aggressive candidate. It’s expected he will be relentless in criticizing Romney. Yet with the overly aggressive performance by Vice President Joe Biden in debating Rep. Paul Ryan, some wonder how aggressive the president should be. If he seems mean or angry, will he risk being less likable and less presidential? What’s the right balance of assertive, yet respectful?

Can Romney live up to higher expectations? Part of Romney’s success was due to his contrast with Obama. Assuming the president improves, can Romney impress again?

Which candidate will benefit from the format? This will be a town hall-style debate. That might seem to favor the president since he’s considered more personable and better at improvising. Romney can be awkward and stiff in trying to relate to people. But Romney has done quite a few town hall meetings as a presidential candidate and, newly confident after his first debate and recent surge in the polls, he could exceed expectations.

How will the audience affect the debate? Many questions for the candidates will come directly from voters. Who knows what unexpected comment or question from a voter might produce a poignant, humorous or just plain weird moment? Voters can say the darnedest things, and in response the candidates can’t just deliver a canned answer without risk of seeming too political and impersonal.

Who will benefit from foreign policy questions? This debate will cover foreign, not just domestic issues. Will Obama have the advantage since he’s commander-in-chief and can speak more authoritatively and knowledgeably? After all, he’s gotten a daily security briefing for four years. However, as Biden demonstrated in his poor explanation of the Libyan security issue during his debate, the president has the disadvantage of a record to defend. Romney has been on the defensive for past statements on foreign policy, particularly during his trip to England and Israel. With lower expectations for Romney, can he impress by being reassuringly statesmanlike and avoiding gaffes?

Who wins the split-screen contest? After Biden’s inappropriate laughing during his debate, people will be much more conscious of how the candidates react, not just act. It may seem trivial given the major issues being debated, but critiquing a debate includes issues of character and leadership. This is especially true when so many undecided, independent voters want political leaders to quit posturing and instead act respectful and cooperative.

How will the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, do? Maybe it’s because the presidential race has become more polarized than ever, but partisans increasingly weigh in on how the moderator performs — often blaming them if their candidates do poorly. Some are still arguing over which approach — Jim Lehrer’s or Martha Raddatz’s — leads to a more enlightening debate.

Will the candidates say something new? After the first debate, some Democrats, including Bill Clinton, charged that Romney metamorphosed into his old moderate self, back to sounding like his early years as governor of Massachusetts. Some Republicans suspect that Obama may try to sound different in this debate — not just more energized, but more bipartisan, and more specific about what he’d try to do in a second term. Will the candidates say something surprising, perhaps adopting a new position or attitude?

What will undecided voters decide? This debate should draw a huge TV audience, but it’s a sliver of the electorate that will determine the outcome — perhaps 5 percent of the voters in just five states. Will this debate persuade enough of them that we see either a continuation of momentum for Romney, or a comeback for Obama? Or will we be asking that same question about the third presidential debate on Oct. 22?

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