For the Obama Campaign, the message seems to be simple: tonight, the President will need to be assertive in his answers to the questioners and resolute in his prosecution of any perceived "Romney falsehoods." Such expectations are admirable, but a town hall debate does not typically allow for candidates to go after one another's records. Town hall debates place an emphasis on style more than substance. If Barack Obama spends the night lecturing the audience about his perceptions of Mitt Romney's message, he may do more damage to his likability.
Flatly, the expectations for the President are nothing short of, "score a decisive win." Now of course, the win won't have to be that decisive because the press has been clamoring for something positive to report about the President since the hours before the first debate. I feel that if the President holds serve, most media outlets will treat mediocrity as a "win" in a thinly veiled attempt to resurrect the President's lifeless campaign. The consequences of a "loss" may be too widespread for the President to recover from, even with one debate remaining.
Going slightly "outside the lines" of the Obama team's expectations for the President, I think there has been a largely unmentioned problem, and that is what the President actually has to do, to score the win tonight. The way I see it, his base wants him to go on the offensive against Mitt Romney, and call out some of his "lies"-really taking him to task over some of the assertions they feel Romney has been able to "get away with" since the last debate. While those less-ardent Democrats will want him to score the win on the merits of his answers alone. To me, that's two very different versions of what a "win" for the President looks like tonight.
The problem with the former is monumental. The Obama Campaign, and the President himself take pride in his likability. They know that many of the President's support from independent voters lie on the fact that they perceive him to be generally, a nice guy and by-and-large do not want to see him "going negative" on Mitt Romney. The problem with the latter approach, is that the President will have to halt some of the momentum that has been at Romney's back for the last 12 days. In order to do that, he will have to draw a stark contrast between he and Romney, and do so with plenty of specifics, not all of which will come off as "friendly." Whichever route Obama decides to take tonight, neither will be an easy path to achieving a victory as perceived by the most important audience-the undecideds.
For Mitt Romney, expectations are high for a completely different reason. His debate performance 12 days ago that has resulted in a huge surge of support that has born itself out in all of the recently polling data, has created the expectation that he can and should win tonight's debate. What Romney must do with his performance tonight is attempt to solidify all of the support he has received since the first debate.
It will not be as easy as it sounds. He will likely have to "think on his feet" tonight, as he knows the tenuous position his opponent is in. The way Mitt Romney can do this is to make sure he quietly and calmly responds to any of the barbs that come is way from the President, in a respectful, but commanding nature.
Mitt Romney has already laid the groundwork for a November upset with his first debate performance. He was able to cast himself as a likable leader, who is clearly fit to be the President. What he has to spend tonight doing is making sure people realize that the first debate was no fluke, that he indeed has the demeanor and know-how to be the next President.
While many pundits have suggested that a town hall style debate benefits the more likable Obama, Mitt Romney needs to prove that he isn't the "Romney-bot" many of his opponents have spent months trying to cast him as. This presents a huge opportunity for Mitt Romney in my opinion. By getting to interact with voters directly, he can illustrate the compassion that few have gotten to see.
It seems as though the expectations coming out of the Romney camp before tonight's debate are all about the confidence they have in their candidate. Whereas the entire nation seems to know that the President must win tonight's debate, most seem to think that expectations for Romney are simply to deliver another solid performance, and let the chips fall where they may. Deep down, I think the Romney campaign knows that another decisive victory can start him down a clear path to victory on November 6, but they should be careful.
For Romney, he must remember that there is another debate-that this is the second of three, and there is still the foreign policy debate which will play itself out in the gigantic cloud of "Benghazigate" that surrounds this White House. All Romney has to do tonight is continue the narrative that came out of the first debate-that he is an able leader, capable of handling our nation's biggest issues.
If Mitt Romney can do that, even if the President gets some good shots in along the way tonight, the Romney campaign can see the second debate as one of the final "notches" in the proverbial belt on their way to the White House. If the President cannot score a decisive victory tonight in the eyes of the voters, not the Beltway Press, "Mittmentum" will become a snowball rolling down a hill, and it won't stop until about midnight on November 6.