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Debate Night in America

Aired October 16, 2012 - 20:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight a high stakes presidential re-match. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney returns in a debate stage. One looking to build on his first performance.

Mitt Romney Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried.

ANNOUNCER: The other needing to prove he can do better.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Under Governor Romney's definition, they're a whole bunch of millionaires and billionaires who have small businesses. Donald Trump is a small business.

ANNOUNCER: It's a brand new test. And a different kind of debate with voters questioning the candidates along with CNN's Candy Crowley.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: We'll see what happens. That's the beauty of debate.

ANNOUNCER: This hour debate advice for the president from someone who's faced him on stage, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Get out there and tell people not just those in the audience but in our country what he has done and what he will do.

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 gets closer. The race has tightened, and America's future is up for debate.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: This is Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. It's the backdrop for another pivotal moment in the fight for the White House. President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney will appear in this hall very soon for their highly, highly anticipated rematch. You see the folks there beginning to arrive including members of the town hall who will be asking questions of both candidates.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world to "Debate Night in America."

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

This is the president's chance for a do-over, if you will, after polls showed he lost his first debate against Romney two weeks ago.

CNN's chief political correspondent Candy Crowley is the moderator for tonight's debate. It's a town hall format so we could see a very different dynamic between these two candidates. Uncommitted voters in the audience will ask questions about both foreign and domestic policy.

The candidates' wives are bracing for the next few hours and the last few weeks of a rigorous campaign. Stand by for portions of our exclusive interviews with both Michelle Obama and Ann Romney, portions that you have not seen before.

We have the full force of our political team devoted to bringing you comprehensive debate coverage.

Let's go to my colleague Anderson Cooper -- Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thanks very much. It is going to be an exciting night. Let me remind you viewers what we're going to see during this debate. We're going to clock the president and Governor Romney to see exactly how much time they discuss particular issues and how much talk time they get overall.

Also our focus group of undecided voters are going to react in real time to what the candidates are saying. The responses are going to look like that on the bottom of your screen so you're going to be able to see how voters are reacting to what each candidate is seeing -- is saying with the lines going up and down.

Let's also take you to the debate hall right now and check in with our Soledad O'Brien -- Soledad.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR AND SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Anderson. We're at the David Mack Sports Complex at Hofstra University. This nearly fits about 5,000 people. Tonight it's roughly a thousand behind me. They've just brought in the 82 uncommitted voters, those are people who say they have no preference for a presidential candidate at this point, or they have a preference, but they're not committed. They could vote for the other guy. They're hoping that they're going to have a chance to have their questions answered during the debate tonight. We didn't have a chance to talk to any of them. They've kept them sort of sequestered backstage keeping them away from any reporters and any questions.

Also in the audience tonight some 300 Hofstra students who were able to win, among the 6500 who applied online to hope to get tickets. Only 300 were able to get them.

Sitting tonight with the First Lady Michelle Obama, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, also U.S. Army veteran, Seth Buckner. He served in the Special Forces and he now works in private enterprise. And we are told they're keeping this room somewhere between 62 and 64 degrees. That is what they have negotiated between the two campaigns tonight.

Back to you.

COOPER: Soledad, I love that all this stuff is up for negotiation. Negotiating the ambient temperature of the debate hall.

Tonight's debate comes exactly three weeks before the election. Early voting is under way in a number of states. John King is tracking the state of the race right now at the magic wall -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And Anderson, we have not changed our baseline calculations, 237 electoral votes learning or strong for President Obama, 191 leaning or strong for Governor Romney. So the president has an easier path to 270. But since the first race, dramatic changes. If all nine of these toss-up states, all nine of them, Governor Romney has made progress. The question is, can he continue that momentum tonight and start tilting the map in his favor? Or can the president stop it?

If the president can't stop it tonight, Anderson, the Romney campaign believes it might also put Michigan and Pennsylvania in play, Wolf.

BLITZER: John, thank you. It will certainly be interesting to see if there's a question tonight about that deadly attack on the United States diplomatic mission in Libya. It was a heated subject during the vice presidential debate last week. And some say Joe Biden's comments that night undermined Hillary Clinton's State Department.

Now the secretary of state is responding. She also has some advice for President Obama tonight.

Secretary Clinton spoke to CNN's foreign affairs reporter Elise Labott in Peru.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: You say you don't want to play the blame game, but certainly there's a blame game going on in Washington. In fact during the presidential debate, Vice President Biden said we didn't know, White House officials calling around saying, hey, this is a State Department function. Are they throwing you under the bus?

CLINTON: Oh, of course not. You know, look, I take responsibility. I am in charge of the State Department, 60,000 plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president certainly wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They are the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision.

LABOTT: The intelligence community initially called it a protest. The State Department never did. You never did. The story has changed now. And as you know, Republicans are charging that this was a cover-up. Was it a rush to judgment or was it bad intelligence as Vice President Biden suggests?

CLINTON: You know, Elise, I take a very different view of this. I have now, for 20 years, been very much in the administration decision-making first with my husband then after 9/11, working with President Bush, now of course in President Obama's Cabinet.

In the wake of an attack like this, in the fog of war, there's always going to be confusion and I think it is absolutely fair to say that everyone had the same intelligence, everyone who spoke --

LABOTT: Bad intelligence?

CLINTON: Well, everyone who spoke tried to give the information that they had. As time as gone on, the information has changed, we have gotten more detail. But that's not surprising. That always happens and what I want to avoid is some kind of political gotcha or blame game going on. Because that does a disservice to the thousands and thousands of Americans not only in the State Department and USAID but in the military who serve around the world.

Everyone wants to make sure they are as safe as possible. But they are doing the job that they were sent out to do.

LABOTT: Well, Ambassador Stevens' father this week said his death is being politicized. Democrats are calling it a witch hunt. Is that what's happening here?

CLINTON: Well, I'm not -- I'm not going to get into the political back and forth. I know that we're very close to an election. I want just to take a step back here and say from my own experience, we are at our best as Americans when we pull together. I've done it --

LABOTT: Are you saying we're not doing that?

CLINTON: Democratic presidents and Republican presidents, I've seen it happen where people say, look, first and foremost, we're Americans. We've lost brave men, dozens more had to fight for their lives over a very long battle. They had to get evacuated because of the dangers that they were facing.

LABOTT: Well, I mean, we have an election coming up. The rationale is that this could go against President Obama. But some people think it's to stop Hillary Clinton from making any gains for 2016.

CLINTON: You know, I -- that is just so far from anything that anybody should be speaking about.


LABOTT: They still see you as a threat, Secretary Clinton.

CLINTON: Well, I can't speak to that. The only threats I'm worried about are the threats to my men and women on the ground, every day, as we speak. It's what I'm obsessed with. It's what we've worked so hard to evaluate and of course we're part of a team. We're a team with the DOD, we're a team with the intelligence community, we're a team with White House and other assets of the government.

LABOTT: Are you going to watch the debate?

CLINTON: I am. I am. We're going to try to get home in time to be sure that I see every minute of it.

LABOTT: You've debated President Obama. You've watched many debates. What does he need to do in this debate?

CLINTON: He just -- needs to be himself and answer the questions and get out there and tell people, not just those in the audience, but in our country what he has done and what he will do. I think this is a consequential election for both domestic and international reasons. And although I am out of politics, I am still an American and care deeply about what happens in my country.

LABOTT: Secretary Clinton, thank you so much for joining us.

CLINTON: Thanks very much, Elise.

LABOTT: thank you.


COOPER: Interview by Elise Labott.

Let's bring Gloria Borger, David Gergen and John King.

Do you have any doubt that this is going to come up tonight? Hillary Clinton saying, I take responsibility? I'm sure Governor Romney --

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It will be interesting to see whether one of the people from the audience raise it.

COOPER: Brings it up.

BORGER: I think -- what Hillary Clinton did very effectively here, although she says in politics anymore, I think she took it off the table to a certain degree, better than the administration has done for itself. And she fell on her sword, this happened on my watch, the vice president was correct. He didn't know. We didn't it was terrorism at the time.

COOPER: It also does leave an opening, though, for Governor Romney to say, well, the buck stops at the president and the president should say the buck stops with him.

BORGER: If it's raised. If it's raised, I think he'll do it.

COOPER: What are you looking for tonight?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I've just had -- just hearing that, and we've been talking about how aggressive Obama should be, as Romney counter charge. I think the real question is, can they meet the Hillary Clinton bar? Can they meet her standard? Because she sets a high one.

COOPER: Right.

GERGEN: I mean, she's gracious, she's dignified, she says what she wants to say, she's not political. That's a very compelling interview. And I don't think she's taken it off the table. I mean, you know, Harry Truman says --


BORGER: Trying to. Trying to.

GERGEN: Got that sign on his desk, the buck stops here in the White House.

COOPER: Right.

GERGEN: That's what Barack Obama has said. I don't think this is enough.


KING: That is a former rival turned very loyal soldier in trying to step forward. She knows her credibility, not just with Democrats but the American people. And she's trying to say this is on me. What you'll hear from Governor Romney tonight is he will say this is one of many examples, one of several examples if it comes up, where the president tries to wash his hands and responsibility and pushed it up on somebody else. The vice president publicly blamed the intelligence community, though the next morning the White House publicly blamed the State Department.

Trust me, people in both those communities and departments, they didn't like that. But she was a loyal soldier there. The question is whether -- look, this is an election about the economy. The economy. The economy. The question is, can Governor Romney connect that to the president's leadership?

BORGER: This could all have blow back for Hillary Clinton personally by falling on her sword the way she did.


BORGER: Right.

COOPER: She's out of politics, as she said.


COOPER: Stand by for our exclusive interviews. Ann Romney on her husband deals with the mistakes and Michelle Obama on something that might make her more nervous than tonight's debate.


COOPER: Take a look at this video taken just moments ago, Mitt Romney's motorcade arriving at the debate site at Hofstra University for the big debate tonight.

We just got also this photo as well, showing the Romneys holding hands in a car on the way to the debate. I think this is almost identical to a photo we had at the first debate. So yet another sign of one of the images the campaign wants you to see.

Now to our exclusive interviews with the candidates' wives. You're going to hear from Michelle Obama a bit later. First Ann Romney opening up to our Gloria Borger about her role as a top surrogate for her husband and a grueling campaign that is not getting any easier as it looks.


ANN ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S WIFE: I think the hardest part for me is being away from my husband a lot. For me, it's being on the road all the time. It's -- there's a good and a bad side of running a campaign. But for me, it's difficult never to be home. It's difficult for me to be separated from my husband a lot. It's difficult for me not to be there are 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 (on camera): But 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's ever going to run a perfect campaign and no one's 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. And that's where Mitt's mental attitude is to, is to just keep pushing everything forward, to keep thinking about the future, to keep thinking about how important this election is. And so you just have to -- you just have to let those things just sort of diminish in your mind a little bit and just go out the next day and just keep pushing.

BORGER: So you were saying you miss being with your husband, do you talk every night now?


BORGER: What do you talk about? Do you talk about the campaign?

A. ROMNEY: Hardly. We talk but hardly do not talk about the campaign which is interesting. We might briefly but not really. We don't talk about the campaign. First question is, have you talked to the boys yet? Or he might say, I saw Josh today, or I was with Craig today. And that's what we talk about. It's not the campaign. That's not our life. Our life is our children. It's our -- you know, our joy together.

Obviously we've been married 42 years. We care for one another, we're concerned for one another. He's worried about, am I getting enough rest? I'm worried about, is he getting enough rest? So it's -- we don't really talk about the campaign.

BORGER (voice-over): But on debate nights like tonight, Ann Romney told us they find some comfort in their debate ritual.

A. ROMNEY: You know, it's the few things that he does almost after every answer. He finds me in his audience. As soon as he gets on stage, the first thing he does is he takes off his watch and puts it on the podium.


But then he writes "dad" on a piece of paper. And that's amazing because he loves his dad, respects his dad, doesn't want to do anything that would not make his father proud. And just a reminder that yes, I'm here, but Dad, I love and respect who you are, what you've taught me, what kind of a person you are. And I'm going to honor that.

BORGER: Romney himself told Wolf Blitzer, it also serves a very real purpose.

ROMNEY: She's right, I write my dad's name at the top of the piece of paper to remind myself of all that he sacrificed to give me the opportunities I now have. I think about his passion, his passion for the country. Dad was devoted to ideals that motivated him. I mean the guy was born in Mexico with nothing when he came to this country, rose to be head of a car company, a governor.

I mean, my dad was the real deal and his life and his memory inspires me. And of course I look at Ann every chance I get. She's usually looking down, she's a little nervous during the debates, but I look to her to see if she feels like I've done a good job.

A. ROMNEY: He'll find me in the audience to see, was that good? Was that OK?

BORGER (on camera): So what do you do?

A. ROMNEY: Good, good.

BORGER: What if you don't like what he did?

A. ROMNEY: You know, I don't --


I don't do any of that.

BORGER: So he's on stage, you're --

A. ROMNEY: Yes, his on stage. There's an emotional connection that's happening between the two of us during the debate itself.


COOPER: Gloria Borger interviewing Ann Romney.

It really interesting just to see what her role now in the campaign.

BORGER: She is one of the most in-demand surrogates on the campaign trail. What's interesting about Ann Romney is she talks about her husband's character, as you would expect a political spouse to do, but she also talks about issues and she can -- you know, she can carry that sort of dagger wrapped in velvet sometimes, if she -- if she has to about President Obama and about the administration, the administration's record. What that record has done for women voters.

So she is somebody who is not apolitical in the least. This is somebody who go out and stump for him on the campaign trail and talk about the issues that her husband's campaign wants her to talk about.

COOPER: And so again, just tonight, women voters, how important are they in terms of trying to --

KING: All other things being equal, meaning, African-Americans turn out in good numbers, Latino turn out in their normal numbers, evangelicals turn out in normal numbers, if -- if all other things being equal, suburban women decide close elections in American politics. Period.

GERGEN: We've seen in this election, President Obama sometimes in some of the national polls had as much as an 18-point lead among women. And then that lead has gone down and shrunk and then opened up again. And I think we're -- you know, we're not quite sure whether women today are going to be moved by economic issues or by the social issues.

COOPER: We're going to take another quick break. Michelle Obama explaining how her daughters are influencing her message on the campaign trail and also by -- no coincidence -- sending a message to women out there.

Stand by for that exclusive interview and for the start of the presidential debate coming up.


BLITZER: All right, the president's motorcade had just arrived over at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, that's out on Long Island.

It's "Debate Night in America," and we're counting down to the second face-off between the presidential candidates. We're just a little bit more than half an hour away from tonight's debate, when President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney appear on the stage together at Hofstra University, our on Hempstead, Long Island.

CNN's chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley, I assume you know by now, she is the moderator, the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in 20 years. It's a town hall format, with the candidates answering questions from uncommitted voters. They have been chosen by the Gallup Polling organization.

The candidates are expected to get up to 15 questions on both domestic and foreign policy. Based on a coin toss, President Obama will be introduced first. Governor Romney will get the first question.

Let's go to the debate hall right now, CNN's Soledad O'Brien is watching what's going on.

Soledad, I assume it's filling up nicely?

O'BRIEN: It is, and, you know, Wolf, those 82 uncommitted voters, registered voters, have been seated for a while now with about 35 minutes until this all gets underway. They are, of course, as you mentioned, hoping to be the ones who get to ask the questions tonight. For the rest of us who are in here, another thousand people or so, on the other side of our cameras, were also held by those same rules. There will be no applause, no cheering, no clapping. Of course BlackBerrys off as well.

And Michelle Obama is telling CNN that she prefers to give her husband positive feedback on debate nights like this. She and her brother Craig Robinson spoke exclusively with our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin.


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): We interviewed First Lady Michelle Obama and her brother Craig before the first presidential debate.

(On camera): You've watched him debate many times. What do you think are his debate strengths?

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: You know, I have to say honestly because I am not a debate watcher, and when you're there, I'm just really -- you know, I'm just so focused on it being over. That I don't have much time to analyze and, you know, and I don't look at the tapes afterward. So I really would probably be the worst person to assess his style or his techniques because I'm -- it's just hard to pays attention to all that.

There's so much that goes on at the debates, you know. There are the rules and you don't want to clap, you know, so, I'm just trying to make sure I'm following the rules so it's hard to really focus.

YELLIN (voice-over): After the president's face-off with Mitt Romney in Denver, he was asked by ABC News about the first lady's feedback.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: What did Mrs. Obama say to you when you got home that night?

OBAMA: You know what? Michelle is always my best advisor, my toughest critic. She and I have been through this together.

YELLIN: But when we met, the first lady did not play critic.

(On camera): Some aides say that you're the one person who can keep his ego in check. Is that true?

M. OBAMA: 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, you know, 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's 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 is big ego. Because he just doesn't have that. So it's not much to check.

YELLIN (voice-over): She got backup 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.

M. OBAMA: Not this one.

YELLIN (voice-over): The first lady is a fierce defender of her husband's administration on the campaign trail, target audience, women.

(On camera): You talk a lot about what your husband has done for women. At the same time, the number of women in poverty has grown during his time in office. It's now at a 17-year high. What is your message to those women? M. OBAMA: This election couldn't be more important for women on so many different issues, I mean, you know, making sure women have equal pay is key to eliminating that gap in the economy. Because so many women are -- they're the heads of their households, many are the sole heads of their households, so they need to have work that pays.

Health care is so critical to women. Now, because of health care reform, women have access to preventative care, things like breast cancer screenings and contraception, and of course, you know, when it comes to making decisions about our health and our bodies, you know, I for one, as a woman and as a mother with two girls, I want to make sure that my daughters make those decisions for themselves.

I could go on and on and on. So many issues will impacted the quality of our lives as women for decades to come and, again, 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.

YELLIN: Let's talk about parenting a little bit because Malia is a freshman in high school, and I think driving is just around the corner. Have you given any thought as to who's going to get in the car with her?

M. OBAMA: This is like the third week of high school, let me get through this first. But what I will say is that Barack and I, we have worked to make sure that our girls have a normal life, you know, even though they're the children of the president.

So it's important for us to make sure that they have friends and sleepovers. They go to school. They do everything that kids do. So that has been our priority from day one and we always check in, I always check in with Craig, do the girls seem like the girls that you knew before we went to the White House.

CRAIG ROBINSON, BROTHER OF M. OBAMA: Right, maybe I'll come out and help teach them to drive.

YELLIN: The president had called you the best mom in the world.

M. OBAMA: He's so sweet.

YELLIN: He says the girls are grounded and great, but no kid is perfect. So when the time calls for it, which one of you plays the heavy?

M. OBAMA: This is the thing I like about Barack, he's not like the happy dad, you know, he is very good at re-enforcing the rules and boundaries that we set. We never get into that, but dad said, we're very good at not letting the kids play off of us and Barack and I really do share the same values.

It makes it easy. I think this is one of the reasons why our wedding was so much fun was because when our families got together, even though they were from all over the world. You had people from Kenya and people from Hawaii and people from Kansas and people from -- you know, it was a melting pot. What connected us was that we all shared the same values and our families got along instantly. So when it comes to raising kids, it helps to have a partner who believes in the same thing, respect, empathy, hard work, decency, you know, we are constantly telling our kids is the most important thing they can be is good decent people who treat other people with kindness and respect.

That's the overall governing principle in our household and we don't stray too far from it. And I don't have to worry about Barack not being, you know, a disciplinarian or me -- we balance each other out.

YELLIN: When you're in the White House, and one of the kids get in trouble, grounding is you're in the White House all weekend, girls?

ROBINSON: They don't get in trouble. They're really good. They're really good. They don't get in much trouble at all.

M. OBAMA: No, they really don't. And to the extent it's -- they already have limited TV time, so trust me, if you only get two hours on Saturday and lose those two hours, you don't -- you're going to watch it.

YELLIN: I interviewed your husband a few weeks ago and he said something interesting, which is that he doesn't do a whole lot of outreach sometimes to members of Congress and folks in Washington because he wants to be home to have dinner with the family regularly.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We may turn down the invitation to this or that or the other just because we're trying to carve out family time.

And I think that's sometimes interpreted as me not wanting to be out there slapping backs and wheeling and dealing, it really has more to do with the stage we are in our lives.

YELLIN: Do you think there's a down side to putting family first?

M. OBAMA: Absolutely not. I mean that's -- gosh, that's at the core of this country. I mean, in the end, this is what we're here for. We're here to make sure that we're giving every family an opportunity to have the kind of stability and you know, opportunities for the future for themselves and for their kids.

And I think the best thing we can do is to model that in our own homes. This is one of the reasons I think Barack and I are so passionate about the work that we do because it is about giving families every tool they need to be strong and stable.

And that means folks need jobs, they need good, well paying jobs. Women need to have -- be paid fairly in the workplace and folks need, you know, the resources to be able to have a decent meal so that they can sit around the table and eat with their kids and have vegetables and to talk about health.

So I think there's no better thing to do than to model that in our own homes. I know that that's how we grew up.

ROBINSON: Yes, we grew up that way. And you know, what's amazing for me is to watch when I come to the White House, it's the White House. I mean, it's the White House.

But inside, in the living quarters, watching my sister and the president operate with their family, it is -- it's refreshing because the only thing that's different is they're in the White House.

YELLIN: It seems normal? A normal family?

ROBINSON: Well, it didn't seem normal. It doesn't seem normal because we're from the south side of Chicago. Everything's the same, but it's inside can White House. And it's very down to earth and very loving.

YELLIN: If your husband is re-elected, what's your second term agenda?

M. OBAMA: Wow, you know, I have to say honestly, we are so focused on November 6. The issues that I'm working on I will continue do to work on and the first thing is to make sure that we come out with a victory on the 6th and then I guarantee you on November the 7th, we will roll up our sleeves and get back to work.


YELLIN: As we come back out, you're listening to some of -- 82 uncommitted voters who are now in that circle. In numbered seats, they're getting ready to start asking those questions when this debate gets under way.

O'BRIEN: I want to ask you about your interview with Michelle Obama. She has long been the secret weapon, if you will, for her husband, the president especially when it comes to the women's vote. Did you ask her now what is the strategy now to regain some of those voters that the president is really struggling with now?

YELLIN: Obviously, we know that he's going to try to talk about some of Governor Romney's positions on abortion, on contraception, to try to make the point on the social issues.

But another way to go about getting the women's vote and try to win it on this night, Soledad, is that they think that health care reform really is an issue that connects especially to independent women voters.

And I would expect that he will try to make the case there. And I also think that he believes that jobs and his message on the economy is the way to win it. But he has to do it with this careful dance by focusing on civility. He has to be careful with his tone. He can't be too aggressive tonight.

O'BRIEN: With the audience, I know she hedge a little bit on her second term agenda too.

YELLIN: Right, which we haven't heard the second term from the president. The first lady wouldn't give us one either.

O'BRIEN: Jessica Yellin, thank you very much. Let's send it right back to you, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Soledad, thanks very much. Great work from Jessica. Of course, we're getting a candid look Mitt Romney and his family backstage before tonight's very important debate. They just posted this photo on Twitter take a look.

As we countdown to debate, let's quickly check back with Jim Acosta and Brianna Keilar. They are over at -- in the spin room. Brianna, first to you. Actually, Jim, let me go to you first. You've got a guest.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. I am with former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu. I knew he is a top surrogate with the Romney campaign. He can also be lively at times and sometimes a little testy if you don't mind me saying, Governor.

But let me ask you first about John Kerry. He came into the spin room earlier this evening. He said that any talk of bipartisanship when Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts is, quote, "a charade." What's your response?

JOHN SUNUNU (R), FORMER NEW HAMPSHIRE GOVERNOR: Well, that's John Kerry speaking for Barack Obama. I wouldn't believe a word he said. How can you not be bipartisan when you have 87 percent of your legislature, Democrats, you can't pass legislation unless you're bipartisan. So when you think about that, it tells you how dishonest John Kerry and Barack Obama are.

ACOSTA: But what's with all of this talk of bipartisan lately, Governor. Is Mitt Romney trying to move to the middle? We heard Bill Clinton the other day say, there's moderate Mitt, where you been?

SUNUNU: Well, no, Mitt Romney has not changed his positions. What he is doing is making sure people understand his accomplishments as governor of Massachusetts. He worked in a state where it was hard for a Republican to get legislation passed. He wants people to know how successful he was. There's nothing wrong with that.

ACOSTA: In the last presidential debate, we heard Paul Ryan talk about the subject of abortion saying you can't separate the policy from the principle. And a lot of people this week are talking about the importance of women voters, do we think we'll hear Mitt Romney echo those sentiments coming from the vice presidential running mate?

SUNUNU: Well, if he is asked, he will. But he is a pro-life candidate. He'll be a pro-life president, but he'll dwell on what is most important to women and that's the jobs issue and the disaster of 23 million Americans who are unemployed today after four years of Barack Obama.

ACOSTA: All right, Governor Sununu, thank you very much. It's not very lively or testy. Well, certainly lively, but not very testy. There we go, it's about to get started here, Wolf, but yes, that's first debate, a lot of talk on domestic and foreign policy issues, not so much on social issues. Perhaps we'll get some of that tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what's going on. Jim, thank you. Brianna's got a guest as well -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there, Wolf. I'm here with Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary, now a top advisor to the Obama campaign. So Robert, how does the president tonight because this is what he has to do. How does he stop the storyline that he's in a slide?

ROBERT GIBBS, OBAMA CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: Well, I don't think he's in a slide. But secondly I think what you're going to see tonight from the president is a vigorous forcible presentation of his case.

And more importantly, he's going to talk about is what we need to do to continue to strengthen this economy over the course of the next four years. That's what this debate is about speaking directly to those undecided voters in the hall and I think that's what you'll see the president do.

KEILAR: Has he gone over the tape from Denver?

GIBBS: Yes, he's looked at that a little bit. I mean, again, I think this is a completely different format and I think what's important is, again, you're getting the questions and the experiences of these undecided voters.

So you have to talk directly to them. You have to connect with them and I think the president is well suited for a format like that despite the fact that Mitt Romney has done a lot of town hall meeting more recently.

KEILAR: Why do you think he's more suited for that? I mean, might he be out of practice a little bit, because as you have mentioned, he hasn't had a lot of experience recently doing this.

GIBBS: Yes, I mean, look, I think he's well suited in the sense that, I mean, I think if you look at what people believe about the president, they believe he's somebody that cares about their lives and their concerns, much more so than somebody like Mitt Romney.

I think when these voters get up and ask very personal questions about where they are in their lives and their struggles that they have, I think somebody like President Obama will be better suited to deal with them than somebody like Mitt Romney who I think quite frankly looks to a bunch of middle class voters appears out of touch.

KEILAR: In Denver, it really appeared as if he didn't have a sense of that split screen, he didn't understand that he was on camera all that time and what he was giving off in those moments. Is he ready for that, for the camera to be on him all the time gauging his every reaction, to have energy even in those moments? GIBBS: Absolutely, look, I think that part was probably instructive for him to see a couple of seconds of after the Denver debate. But I think more than anything, this is about -- tonight it's about interacting with those voters.

It's about speaking directly to those undecided voters and talking to them about what we can do to strengthen our manufacturing economy, bring jobs back from overseas, invest in energy and education and give people a real sense of opportunity.

KEILAR: All right, Robert, thank you very much. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks very, very much. I want to go to our political reporter, Peter Hamby. He is joining us on the phone. You're working your sources. You're at the debate hall out on Long Island, what are you learning, Peter?

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER (via telephone): Hi, Wolf. I just talked to Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois actually from Obama's home state, a long time Obama watcher. Of course, I asked him point blank, is Barack Obama a good debater.

And Durbin paused for a minute and he said, his strengths are in other areas, that's a quote. And he said Obama's probably better giving the big speech. He's sort of a better thinker and writer than he is a debater.

Look, this might be another exercise in lowering expectations for Democrats. But he has a point, I mean, in 2008, as you know, he had a lead on McCain, versus kind of holding on to it. He had good debates with Hillary back in 2004.

He didn't really have a chance to debate in the race against Alan Keyes. But he said tonight will be the first real test, this is Dick Durbin's words of whether or not Barack Obama is in fact a good debater -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Peter Hamby reporting as he always does for us. Peter, thanks very, very much. We go to Anderson Cooper right now. Anderson, you heard Dick Durbin say the president has other skills, maybe debating not necessarily his best.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We'll certainly see tonight. It's 17 minutes or so to go before this debate begins. I want to talk to our contributors, just give kind of a cheat sheet to our viewers what they should be looking for and you will be looking for.

VAN JONES, FORMER OBAMA SPECIAL ADVISER: We have this group of listeners, watchers who are from Ohio. I think he's got find a way to make sure that they understand what he's doing for manufacturing jobs. He has a record to run.

Manufacturing jobs are growing in Ohio. This is going to be a hit on his green energy policy. There are 125,000 people in Ohio right now who have jobs in the clean energy sector. Mitt Romney wants to knock those jobs out.

In other words, I think he's got an opportunity to reach out. Ohio shouldn't even be close. He should be focusing on the people who are worried about their economic situation and pointing out the ways that he's been improving their economic situation and continue to improve it.

Climate change hasn't been talked about at all. Just because it's not part of political reality, doesn't mean it's not part of the drought and other things going on. He's killing two birds with one stone by taking on climate change and talking about energy reform. I think he can do that in Ohio.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: These debates for me are not about the issues, or who's the better debater. The president's job is to take this country right now, which is in such doubt about its own future.

Said, look, we can go to a better place. Our president supposed to be Moses. I know I said that a lot who leads us to the Promised Land. Who shows us a better path to the future? Do we look at Romney and said Obama's done the best he can, but he's not the best we can do. Does he try to take us to a better place?

COOPER: I want to take in our Mark Preston. What did you just heard?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR (via telephone): Anderson, I have been talking to top officials in the Romney campaign today and they tell me they expect President Obama to try to paint Governor Romney as an extremist on women's issues especially abortion.

They tell me that Romney is ready to counter this and that the governor will clearly explain that he is pro-life, but believe in exception such as rape incest in the like of a mother. They also said that Romney supports people having affordable access to contraception, but against forcing hospitals with religious affiliations from having to provide it. And as you know, Anderson, this fight over the women vote may decide this election.

COOPER: Mark Preston, appreciate that call. Dee Dee Myers.

DEE DEE MYERS, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I certainly agree with Alex that elections are about the future. Job number one for President Obama is to talk about the future and what kind of America is he going to lead, both in terms of the themes and the vision, as well as his program stuff.

His plan to create a million new jobs has been blocked in Republican Congress. His plan to continue to have a new energy policy, which will create jobs and move us toward energy independence.

He's going to talk about abortion, and I hope he does, because Romney has taken ever possible position that's out there. So I hope the president holds him accountable, but the most important thing is to talk about the future and to connect people to a hopeful vision of where the country is going.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER BUSH WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're all partisans, we made up our minds, but undecided voters are mostly white suburban women of middle aged and a little bit younger than middle age.

So if you're the president, you really want to bang through on these women's issues and paint Mitt Romney as an extremist. And Mitt Romney, you can talk about bipartisanship. The things you accomplished in Massachusetts working with Democrats.

You're going to set that tone about the economy, that you have the plan for the future to get the economy growing and working again, which helps all people, all families, everybody. That is undecided, 3 percent to 9 percent, are all that's undecided in this country.

CASTELLANOS: The president has been losing support with women since the first debate. And the president's strategy of treating women as a collection of reproductive parts and not participants in the economy has not been working for him. If he just goes to that narrower strategy, it's not going to help him.

COOPER: We're going to have more from our contributors in a moment. I just want to take you into the hall, the first lady and Ann Romney are about to be introduced by Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Anderson, I could not quite exactly here what you said because behind us they're giving instructions. They said a couple of things, one a big thank you to the people who are here. They estimate 60 million people who will be watching.

They want to advise people as in the last debate that people will be tweeting. As mentioned before, we have 82 people who are actually in the town hall and the folks who are watching on television.

We're hoping to see the spouses introduce introduced, which has been the format in prior debates. They're both wearing pink.

YELLIN: They're women of substance so we know they are as well. They're wearing hot pink, the same exact color.

KEILAR: Pink as we know is the color of women and so we have been talking all night about the fact that there's going to be a big outreach by both the president and Mitt Romney to women.

O'BRIEN: And certainly practically speaking, you want to look different when you take a cut away shot you want to make sure that you look a little different than the other candidate and the other candidate's wife.

We're expecting that they are going to introduce the spouses and then go right into the debate. We're expecting that to begin roughly 10 minutes or so. Candy Crowley, of course, will be the moderator for this one. It's been interesting to see how quiet it is the minute they actually start the program. YELLIN: Well, the audience, they're rapt here, they're waiting just as we are, but fascinated with the format to hear there are a lot of rules that everybody has to observe. So they need to pay close attention to what they can and can't do as well because everyone has to follow it.

KEILAR: We can rewind maybe 5 or 10 minutes to what they were doing, I believe we have a picture that the Romney campaign tweeted out. I think it's very interesting because it's very telling about what Mitt Romney actually says to be mentally prepared, mentally ready and relaxed.

KEILAR: He has all five sons here with him. Two of his sons, Josh and Ben are going to be actually in the audience and of course, he has his wife. Before the first debate, I was told by several Romney officials that one of the things they do before every big event, particularly debates is right before they separate, they pray.

O'BRIEN: I know he had a question for you guys -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I think the first ladies are being introduced right now, Soledad. Let's watch as they introduce the first lady, obviously the first lady Michelle Obama, and the first lady wannabe Ann Romney.

And then our own Candy Crowley will be introduced. I think she's going to have a few words to say when this debate begins. A quick question to you, the first lady, Michelle Obama, she seems to be a little bit more nervous than Ann Romney is in these kinds of formats. Maybe you guys could discuss that.

YELLIN: Well, she does say that this makes her incredibly uncomfortable in these kinds of settings because she pays enormous amount of attention that she's being watched and the cameras could be on her at any moment.

And there's things she should be doing and should not be doing and she feels like a parent watching her child on the balance beam.

KEILAR: In the last debate and in others, it seems as though that they strategically put the families and particularly the spouses in eye line so the candidates can see them.

YELLIN: She said she's not sure if you can see her or not because the lights are always in her eyes. She always smiles and she can't tell if she's actually making eye contact.

KEILAR: The girls don't watch because actually they're doing home work. And it bores them, it's not for them. And she says she doesn't watch it afterwards, but she takes it seriously, but it's not comfortable for her.

O'BRIEN: It must be very nerve-racking for both spouses, anybody who spouse watching their husband get up there and debate for 90 minutes.

KEILAR: We're very proud to watch Candy Crowley. O'BRIEN: We're very excited to see this debate come off, which we're expecting to get underway, Wolf, in just about 7 minutes or so.

BLITZER: -- going to be introduced. She's -- as all of you know and most of our viewers know who have watched Candy over the years and you can attest to this, she is clearly one of the coolest, coolest characters out there.

She will do a fabulous, fabulous job as we await Candy Crowley being introduced and the start of this debate, Anderson, let me go back.

COOPER: Let's focus on what we expect from these two men now running for office.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think the president has an opportunity here, given the last debate to try and press his case that Mitt Romney is a political opportunist.

COOPER: They're introducing Candy so let's tune in for that.

CANDY CROWLEY, MODERATOR: Thank you. Let me address my friends in the cheap seats out there. How many times you have been told to turn off everything that has an on off button, check it for a fifth time. Pretend you're on an airplane -- if you want to be a key player.

COOPER: Clearly the mike that they're feeding --

CROWLEY: -- having a front row seat in history. Whether you're in the cheap seats or you're down here as part of the posse, you have a front row seat in history and I think it will be real fun if you turn off all the equipment you brought with you.

And thank you to you guys back there and you all know, I'm with you, it's going to be a greet night, thank you all, you've been well fed, you have brought great questions and it's going to be a good night.

So we will help each other and we have a couple of great candidates and really smart guys so they are awaiting your question. Thank you all, enjoy tonight and I will see you on the other end of the hour and a half. Thanks.

COOPER: David, John King, what are you going to look for?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: So many times in the campaign this is the moment that they're going resolve this campaign. This is a hugely important debate.

And the clear question politically is whether president Obama can stop Mitt Romney's forward momentum, can he blunt that momentum and regain the lead.

If he can, he comes out of this, if he wins tonight big, he comes out of this a strong favorite. On the other hand, if Mitt Romney wins, he comes out as the favorite. COOPER: If the president performs well tonight, has a very strong night, does that just slow Mitt Romney or does that actually alter the ballots?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDEN: If you go back a few years, the Republicans would say if we're even on Election Day we'll win. The Democrats now say that they are very confident of that.

They have spent months and millions working on the ground operations. The Democrats have confidence that if all things are equal on Election Day, they will win a very close election. So the president at a minimum has to stop the momentum and get some.

COOPER: It is very difficult in this format for President Obama to really -- often town halls end up being a draw.

KING: You go in it knowing that you're going to at least get one question that allows you to get to your strategic imperative and for the president. He has to do better than in the first. Governor Romney goes into this debate trying to be Barack Obama from four years ago. I will give you a better economy and I will change Washington.

BORGER: It's easy to counter punch. It's hard to throw the first punch in a town hall meeting, but it's easier to respond with an attack and say by the way, that's not what you said during the primaries. Or by the way, look at what you said the other day on the question of abortion.

GERGEN: You would think that the administration would lend itself to a tie. But four years ago, Barack Obama won decisively. He got 55 percent in the CNN poll.

COOPER: We should also point that Erin Burnett is with the group of undecided voters. We are going to be monitoring this debate. You're going to see their reactions under the screen. Erin, it's very fascinating to see how they react.

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, CNN'S "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT": They have in the focus group really indicated who did better who did worse. And tonight, these 35 voters, Anderson, I can tell you. In 2008, overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama, but tonight, if they had to vote right now, 6 of the 35 for Obama, 5 for Mitt Romney, they are split.

They trust the president. They think he cares more about them, but 60 percent of them disapprove of the job he's doing and they are a dead even split of who should be president for the next four years.

No Republican, of course, have ever won the White House without the state of Ohio. So these 35 voters here tonight really could hold the fate of the entire nation in their hands.

You'll see the lines at the bottom of the screen and we'll see who is going to be voting for whom when all is said and done tonight -- Anderson.

COOPER: What would be the biggest mistake both men could make?

BORGER: I think becoming unlikable. For the first time Mitt Romney's favorable numbers are kind of above water now, they were under water. He's reached the 50 percent mark. If you look at some polls, I think the worst thing would be to do something that says, ouch, that was mean, nasty, negative.

COOPER: If he believes that tonight, does he call Mitt Romney on it?

GERGEN: He doesn't come out slugging Romney, what you have to do in a town hall is talk to the people who are asking questions and effect talk through them to go back to your opponent, but you have to take care of them first.

KING: Don't insult the questioner, when I ask them a question, or you ask them a question, they can pivot, but not with the voters. Be nimble, be deft actually answer the person's question and then get your point. If you want to be president of the United States, you should handle that.

COOPER: You're stressing me out. It's great drama. It's going an incredible night.

JONES: Mitt Romney should not try to be funny. When he tries to be funny, that's when he gets himself in trouble. You mentioned early on that Ann Romney's good at putting the gloved -- the gloved knife in. I think he's got to be -- Obama has got to be able to say, you've got -- you've got a great plan, it just doesn't make sense. It's two minus two equals four. He's got -- right now a lot of people like Mitt Romney. But then they think he's got a plan. He's go to find a way, Obama, without seeming like he's a bad person and say, just the math just doesn't add up. My plan does.

COOPER: And John, just in the final seconds, the numbers that people who -- that both men need to convince tonight?

KING: Independents, suburban women and those people in the room with Erin. I want to read you one quick sentence from a focus group down in the same area a week ago by a good Democratic pollster. This is about the president's first performance. It left these voters both stunned and mystified. It has caused them to give Romney a second look. The president needs to get that look tonight.

COOPER: Wolf, there's going to be a lot of -- a lot of eyes watching tonight. A lot of different ways to watch tonight. We, of course, going to have complete debate coverage afterward. Our panel is here. Our analysts, our contributors. With all those undecided voters. A lot that we're going to talk about, as soon as this debate is over -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Anderson, all of us are excited, we're pumped, we're ready to go, Candy Crowley is getting ready to introduce the Republican presidential nominee and the Democratic presidential nominee. Eighty-two undecided voters in that town hall format. They had an opportunity to submit questions. Candy selected the questions. We expect about 15 questions to come forward. Candy will have an opportunity after the questions, two minutes from each candidate, to facilitate a discussion. She can do follow-up questions. And then we're moving along.

This debate is getting ready to begin. We're watching it very closely. Let's go to Hofstra University on Long Island.