President Barack Obama went into Tuesday's debate looking to regain the momentum he squandered with a deflating performance in the first presidential debate.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney hoped to keep his momentum going with another solid debate performance. Recent national polls show likely voters about evenly divided, but multiple surveys have detected increasing enthusiasm among Romney backers.
Even here in Pennsylvania, which has largely been viewed as leaning toward Obama, Romney has closed the gap.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday said 50 percent of likely voters support Obama versus 46 percent for Romney. Three weeks ago, Quinnipiac reported Obama with 54 percent to Romney's 42 percent. The shift in momentum is working its way down the ballot, too. Quinnipiac's survey showed Democratic Sen. Bob Casey with 48 percent versus Republican challenger Tom Smith's 45 percent. Quinnipiac's Aug. 1 survey showed Casey with a big lead, 55 percent to Smith's 37 percent.
In the first debate, Obama frustrated supporters and put off other observers by appearing aloof and disinterested. He was unprepared for Romney's tactic of trying to appeal to moderate voters, particularly when the Republican candidate argued that the president was misrepresenting Romney's views.
Most observers expected the president to approach Tuesday's debate more aggressively. The key question was whether Obama could engage Romney without appearing desperate or too negative.
Obama struck the right tone, although he still has not recaptured the electricity of his first campaign for the presidency. Obama managed to put Romney on the defensive. Obama was able to quickly set the tone of the debate by casting Romney as an ultra-wealthy former venture capitalist.
Romney determined that voters will be best swayed by reminding voters of Obama's disappointing performance rather than articulating a credible plan for turning things around.
Obama's problem is that voters know what his presidency looks like. For the most part, it has been a disappointment. Obama performed better than he did in the first debate, but his campaign remains bogged down by his record in office. It is a record of increased gas prices and elevated unemployment rates. It is a record that may not be entirely the president's fault, but it is the history of his first term in office.
It is that record that is posing a greater threat to his re-election than anything Romney has said or done.