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THE SITUATION ROOM

Romney, Obama Set for Second Debate; Hillary Clinton Accepts Blame for Libya Attack; Obama's Double-Digit Leads Vanish; Wanted: Women's Votes; Debate Night for the First Lady; Raising a Family in the White House; 233 Sick, 15 Dead in Meningitis Epidemic; Stimulus Recipient Files for Bankruptcy; Cruise Workers Face Drug Charges

Aired October 16, 2012 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: last-minute preparations for debate night in America. Will President Barack Obama show some fire and passion? And is Governor Mitt Romney ready to be challenged?

Also, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks to CNN about the deadly attack on Benghazi, saying -- and I'm quoting her now -- "I take responsibility."

And in a rare interview about her family, the first lady talks about life in the White House and her husband's performance in the first debate.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

With only 21 days to go until the presidential election, we're counting down to debate night in America. Both candidates are taking tonight very, very seriously. Air Force One arrived in New York just a few hours ago. President Obama has spent the past few days in Virginia. He's been concentrating on debate preparations. Mitt Romney flew in from Massachusetts, where he's been rehearsing.

Everything could hinge on the candidates' performance in tonight's debate town hall style moderated by CNN's own Candy Crowley.

Our pre-debate coverage begins right now with CNN's national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, who's been following the Romney campaign -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a top campaign adviser tells CNN Mitt Romney has been working on his town hall debate skills, taking on not just a stand-in moderator, but also mock questioners in his practice sessions.

But it's also worth noting Romney has done countless campaign events in this type of town hall setting, but sometimes with mixed results.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Looking to put another crucial night in the debate win column, Mitt Romney is heading into his next face-off with President Obama after days of intense preparations. To gear up for the evening's town hall format, a Romney adviser says the GOP nominee has rehearsed with a roomful of multiple questioners during practice sessions. Romney campaign officials are giving President Obama the edge, but note the Republican contender has held over 100 town hall meetings.

They expect Romney to talk about the economy and what they call his bipartisan record governing Massachusetts. Advisers say Romney also hopes to take on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comments on the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya when she told CNN the buck stops with her.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I take responsibility.

ACOSTA: An obvious opening for Romney to say the buck should stop with the president.

After two runs for the White House, Romney has grown more comfortable in town hall settings, here kidding around with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie last week in Ohio.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm going to turn to you for questions in just a few moments and let you ask any questions you would like. And I will answer some. And if they're real tough, I will have Chris answer them.

(LAUGHTER)

ACOSTA: But Romney has also offered ammunition to his opponents. Take this question on the president's health care law last January.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is your strategy to replace it with? How do we move forward to make health care once again affordable?

ACOSTA: When Romney responded that consumers should have the ability to fire their insurance companies, his GOP rivals pounced.

ROMNEY: It also means that if you don't like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people that provide services to me.

ACOSTA: Democrats are still talking about this Romney town hall answer on college financial aid last March.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If elected, what you would do with regards to college tuition, whether making it easier for me and my classmates.

ROMNEY: The best thing I can do for you is to tell you to shop around and to compare tuition in different places.

ACOSTA: Sometimes, it's body language that's memorable, like the first President Bush looking at his watch in 1992 or the second President Bush's reaction in Al Gore invading his space in 2000.

There are other risks in coming off as too tough. SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one.

ACOSTA: And as too soft, as Romney did when a reporter suggested the president was a traitor at this town hall in May.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a president right now that is operating outside the structure of our Constitution. And I want to know -- yes, I do agree he should be tried for treason.

ROMNEY: I happen to believe that the Constitution was not just brilliant, but probably inspired.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for that talk from the Romney campaign that Mitt Romney would like to take on the issue of Benghazi later on this evening, Wolf, I do have a comment from an Obama campaign official who said -- quote -- "Romney's criticized the president, but given his track record of taking both sides on every major foreign policy issue including U.S. intervention in Libya, the impetus is on him to say what he would do differently."

Wolf, just judging by the pre-debate spin, the sparks are going to fly tonight.

BLITZER: They certainly will. We will be watching. Jim Acosta, good report. Thank you.

President Obama's detached performance in his first encounter with Mitt Romney shifted the momentum of the presidential race. The nationwide and swing state polls tightened dramatically, some even showing him sliding into second place. He knows his presidency could be riding on a strong performance tonight.

CNN White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is joining us now. She has some inside news on his debate preparations.

Brianna, what are you learning?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama has began today as he has the last few with a workout. And then he met with his debate team for a 45-minute brush-up before heading here to Long Island.

He's spending his time now here at a local hotel. He has got some down time with some of his friends. He's doing some last-minute debate prep and he will finish off the evening before the debate with a steak and potato dinner with the first lady. But the emphasis of his prep that's really been under way intensely for the last few days has been working on his delivery. That's what campaign sources tell us because of that lackluster performance that we saw in Denver.

So, tonight, sources tell us we should be expecting to see a more assertive President Obama, but also an optimistic President Obama. Here's what Robert Gibbs, one of the campaign advisers, said this weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He also knew as he's watched the tape of that debate that he's got to be more energetic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: President Obama has watched tape of his Denver performance multiple times to get an appreciation for what the audience saw and perhaps left wanting more from him.

He has spent the last three days in an intensive debate camp in Williamsburg, Virginia, on an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay kind of holed up inside of a resort there, very structured, very long days starting in the morning with a workout and breakfast. He started debate prep around 10:00 a.m. in the morning. He'd be working through possible questions that he might get from town hall audience members and from our own Candy Crowley, the moderator of this debate.

He'd break for lunch. He'd be back to debate prep coming back after dinner, Wolf, for that mock debate, each night a 90-minute debate, essentially a dress rehearsal. So finishing up the evening at 10:00, 10:30 at night, these were long 12-hour days, his aides know that so much is riding on tonight, while at the same time, Wolf, they're downplaying the effect that his performance in Denver may have had on the polls.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar will be with us throughout the night for our coverage as well. Brianna, thanks to you.

Tonight's debate could have a huge effect on the electoral map.

CNN's chief national correspondent, John King, is watching that for us.

What are you seeing, John?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, Brianna might say the Obama campaign is downplaying the impact of that first debate on the polls, but the impact is obvious and it's dramatic.

That's why going into debate number two, the question is we know debate number one was a race changer. And I will show you in just a second. But can the president make debate number two a race changer? Why was it a race changer and why is the Romney campaign optimistic?

Nevada, progress for Romney since the first debate, Colorado, progress for Romney since the first debate, Ohio, progress for Romney since the first debate, Iowa, progress for Romney since the first debate. New Hampshire, progress for Romney, Virginia and North Carolina, progress for Romney. Florida, progress for Romney.

Look at all the states, Wolf. They're all blue. These are all states the president carried back in 2008. But let's go back in time. That was a big Democratic year. The argument inside the Romney campaign is this is a more level playing field. Neither party has a great advantage like President Obama and the Democrats had in 2008.

So in a more normal year almost all of these states in 2004 except for New Hampshire voted Republican. They have more Republican DNA in presidential politics. Back to 2000, where Al Gore and George W. Bush of course fought so bitterly to the end all in these states except for Iowa. New Hampshire that year went Republican, and Iowa went Democratic.

The Romney campaign is optimistic, because it has a bit of momentum in so many of these states. Their argument, Wolf, is if you take one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight states they now have momentum in with just three weeks left in the campaign, they can afford to lose a few. So their take going into this is if they can keep the momentum at their back, they will dramatically improve their standing.

This is the map that matters most, the Electoral College map. The president still has an advantage, but with Governor Romney gaining momentum, Wolf, increasingly, not only is he in better position in all these battleground states that we have gold on your map here, the tossup states.

There's some talk the president will have to play defense and Romney may have opportunities in places Michigan and Pennsylvania. Again, after this second debate, we will have a much better take of the true electoral battlefield. President Obama needs to change the dynamic tonight. A lot of Democrats are very nervous.

BLITZER: He needs to change the dynamic. He can't wait for the third debate next Monday.

Quick question on the polls. After the conventions when President Obama was doing great in the polls and riding high in all the battleground states for all practical purposes, Republicans were complaining that the polls weren't fair, that they were biased against the Republicans. Now that the Republicans are doing great, relatively speaking in the polls, they have come back, are the Democrats complaining about the methodology in these polls?

KING: No. They're not.

The Republicans I hope have learned their lesson, that the pollsters eight of 10 times, nine out of 10 times, 99 times out of 100 get it just about right. The Democrats aren't complaining. They argue some states. The campaigns are saying our polls in Ohio are better than your public polls in Ohio.

But there's no question they accept this dynamic. If you talk to smart Democrats outside the campaign, veteran pollsters like Stan Greenberg, Peter Hart, they are issuing public warning signs for the president of the United States, Wolf. They say in that first debate, because he didn't fight, he lost independents, he lost working class, he lost ground in the suburbs. He lost ground because people watched him and said I want someone to fight for my job. I want someone to fight for my community. He had no fight. That is the biggest advice from Democrats outside the Obama campaign that he better show up tonight and not just fight Governor Romney, but prove to people he has a road map to get to a better economy in the next four years.

BLITZER: Good point. John of course will be with us throughout the night as well.

Even if the president is tougher tonight on Mitt Romney, there's another big challenge. Will he draw a clear picture of where he intends to take the country if reelected?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: With just a few hours before tonight's debate, both candidates are surely feeling the pressure, because with just three weeks to go before the election, the race in some key battleground states is dramatically tightening right now.

Our senior political analyst Ron Brownstein is joining us. He's the editorial director of "The National Journal." He's outside the debate hall over at Hofstra University, out on Long Island.

I'm going to put a couple polls up on the screen --

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

BLITZER: -- and let's discuss what's going on.

This is in Pennsylvania right now. Likely voters, the Quinnipiac University poll right now -- Obama in Pennsylvania: 50 percent, Romney: 46 percent. Clearly close within the margin of error, shall we say. And in New Hampshire, look at this. New Hampshire likely voters, 47-47, it's a tie in New Hampshire.

I put these two states up because a couple weeks ago, the president was ahead in both of these states by double digits.

So what's going on here?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, you're seeing across the board movement toward Governor Romney after that first debate that is sustaining itself. Wolf, this looks like a genuine major kind of departure point in the campaign that President Obama has to reverse.

You know, you can quibble about the results of any individual poll, you can quibble about the sample, we can talk about some of those issues in a minute, but the general trajectory is unmistakable. You're seeing an erosion for the president pretty much across the board among whites, holding his nonwhite support at about the 80 percent level that he had in 2008. But you see him losing ground not only among the blue collar whites, which are always skeptical of him, but also the white collar whites, college-educated whites where he did much better in 2008. BLITZER: A senior Romney advisor told "Politico", he said, "To move three points in Pennsylvania is different than moving three points in New Hampshire." What does that mean?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, Pennsylvania's a state that President Obama won by 10 points. That the Democrats have an enormous registration advantage in and which really is personified the realignment of the white upper middle class that's made the Northeast and West Coast so much more favorable for Democrats. Those four suburban counties outside Philadelphia in 2008, President Obama won them by a combined 200,000 votes. You combine that with the African-American population of Philadelphia, the state is essentially unwinnable for Republicans.

So I think for Romney to be getting that close in Pennsylvania, as I said, is a signal that the erosion the president's been seeing and you see this in the national polls also is not only among those working class whites always skeptical of him but really across the board, including those socially liberal upper middle class whites that are more reliable Democratic voters in the last several elections.

BLITZER: How important for both of these candidates tonight? Will it be to lay out specifics? Not just goals, broad generalities, but specific proposals what they would do over the next four years?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think for the president, job one overwhelmingly is to convey the sense that he has a plan that makes people's lives better over the next four years and that he's passionate about that plan. I mean, if you look at the focus groups that Peter Hart and Stan Greenberg as John King noted a few minutes ago, that they've written about in the last few days, you saw the sense among voters that the president almost had run out of gas in that first debate. And that's what he was projecting that Romney -- in the words of Greenberg and James Carville -- had kind of been able to identify himself as the voice of change.

That is above all what the president has to alter tonight. He has to re-establish himself as an agent of change, someone who has an agenda that he wants to pursue even while contrasting what he wants to do with Governor Romney's agenda.

MATTHEWS: Given the nature of this debate tonight, town hall format, who has the advantage?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, I think in a town hall historically, it's harder to do kind of negative messaging. But it's very possible to do the kind of, I'm on your side understanding regular people kind of messaging. And that has been something that has been critical to holding President Obama's lead in the polls and even in September when he was, you know, as apex, much of it was because he was way ahead of Governor Romney in both national and swing state polling on who cares about people like me, who would pursue an agenda that would be good for all Americans.

And I think, you know, the debate offers an opportunity to reclaim some of that ground. But he allowed Romney in that first debate I think to change his image with many of his swing voters. And it's not clear you can put the genie back in the bottle. The opportunity for the president in the remaining debates may be more to improve his own image than to undo the good Romney did for himself in debate number one.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein is already there at the university, at Hofstra University, out on Long Island, getting ready for tonight's huge, huge debate. Ron, we'll talk to you later.

When the president takes stage in tonight's debate, what's Michelle Obama going to be focusing on? You're going to hear the answer to that and more from the first lady herself. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A court has made a major decision about early voting in a key swing state.

Kate Bolduan is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Kate, what's going on?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're talking about Ohio, Wolf -- the key swing state of Ohio. The court there says early voting open has to be open to all voters. That's the Supreme Court today saying that. That blocks a law in Ohio that would have allowed only military families to vote in the three days before Election Day.

Ohio Democrats and the Obama campaign challenged the law while the state's Republican leaders asked the justices to allow the restrictions to take effect. Polls show Obama and Mitt Romney in pretty much a dead heat in Ohio right now.

Also, Cuba is making it easier for residents to travel outside the country. Today, Cuba's official news site is reporting that the Castro government is dropping two travel requirements, a travel permit and a letter of invitation. That could save travelers hundreds of dollars. But residents will need a valid passport, something not everyone is allowed.

And Social Security benefits for nearly 62 million Americans will be going up next year. The 1.7 percent cost of living increase means the average retiree will take in about $40 more each month. But for some, that money will go to higher Medicare premiums. For workers, the adjustment also means more wages will be subject to Social Security tax.

And it could be the sequel to "The Thomas Crown Affair." I guess it could be the third sequel, or second sequel. I'm going to move on now.

Seven paintings were stolen from exhibition in the Netherlands early this morning. Police are blaming a burglar who they say was well prepared. The art is of considerable value by Picasso, Matisse, Monet and others. They're part of a private collection being shown in public for the very first time. Guess you've learned your lesson not to show -- no, I'm just kidding.

BLITZER: It's a good movie. I like "The Thomas Crown".

BOLDUAN: But which one? '68 Steve McQueen or in the '90s Pierce Brosnan?

BLITZER: I saw them all. I saw all of them. How many were there again? Two, three.

BOLDUAN: Two. I'm not a movie magician. I don't know.

BLITZER: It worked pretty good.

BOLDUAN: I love them, I guess.

BLITZER: Monet.

BOLDUAN: I don't have one. You can get that for me for Christmas.

BLITZER: There may be one available pretty soon. Be careful. Don't buy it.

Something to look for in tonight's presidential debate. You're going to see how much both candidates who target women voters. Gloria Borger and our special panel, they will have a preview.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As you watch tonight's presidential debate, watch for both candidates try to do to make a strong pitch to women voters. To see why, take a look at this snapshot.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Women push Romney into the lead. Holy smokes!

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: This is the "USA Today"/Gallup poll finds Obama and Romney running virtually even-steven among women -- women. That is in 12 swing states. Different picture here, look at this nationwide polls and Obama is leading Romney by seven points or more.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The focus should be on what do women voters want?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Abortion, contraception, child care -- some of the issues that didn't come up in the first debate, will they come up tonight?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go over to CNN's chief political analyst Gloria Borger. She's got a special panel.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I do, Wolf. Thanks so much.

And yes, it is all about women tonight -- right, guys? I should say that. It's sort of like girls night out tonight because women are going to be the deciders in this election. My group that I'm looking at are really suburban married women, although single women have --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

BORGER: -- shifted to the Romney camp.

What do you think, Ari? I mean, you're a Republican.

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Single women vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

BORGER: Yes.

FLEISCHER: But what's fascinating when you actually dig deep into the numbers is there's a racial component to this as well. Republicans win white women. George Bush the two years he won, he won white women by 11 percentage points in 2004, one percentage point in 2000.

The issue is compounded when you add up Hispanic vote and black vote and combine it all women in America, that's where Republicans lose. So is the appeal because the numbers are so overwhelmingly against Republicans in minority communities where Republicans have a lot of work to do or is it women, women's issues?

I think the fact that Republicans win white women is a very important and telling side because it shows it's not just a woman's issue. It cuts a lot deeper than that. And also with all women the fact is in 2010 when Republicans had a massive sweep, there was no gender gap among all will of every background --

BORGER: That's not going to happen this time though. I mean, we know that. These polls are all over the place.

FRANKLIN FOER, EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": This summer the Democrats were up in the air with all the ads about the war on women. Unless their internals were completely messed up, they were hitting this message relentlessly and it was showing up in the polls.

It was working for them and they pivoted to another message and they have to pivot back in order to make up for the ground Obama lost in the last debate.

BORGER: But why? Why did he lose that?

VAN JONES, FORMER OBAMA SPECIAL ADVISER: I think if you're in a situation -- this is just kind of basic. You have two guys up there, one kind of acting like a wimp and --

BORGER: Those are strong words.

JONES: Those are strong words. But if that's the divide, I think people are going to want somebody who seems like a stronger leader even if they were a little obnoxious. I think what you're going to see now is who's the real guy.

BORGER: You're saying Romney was obnoxious?

JONES: I thought he did well for himself but really obnoxious and aggressive. To some women you would think that would be a turnoff, but the level of strength he was showing I think based on --

BORGER: I take it you're not.

J.C. WATTS, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: I think you've got some women that are never going to vote for Mitt Romney. And you got some women will never vote for President Obama.

I think President Obama had the governor on the ropes and he let him up because he didn't perform very well. He was flat footed. He didn't defend his position very well.

And I think there are a lot of women just like every other demographic out there. They were saying we want to fire this guy, but we're not comfortable with this guy. I think Governor Romney gave women a lot of demographics out there a comfort level --

FOER: It's the etch-a-sketch. I mean, Romney was painted over the course of the summer as a villainous figure. The Democrats were able to portray his position as being -- rightly portray his position as being extreme on some of these issues. When Romney stepped up in that debate, he looked very moderate and very reasonable --

BORGER: Acceptable.

FOER: He looked acceptable.

WATTS: But again I think that plays to what I said. He gave people an opportunity to take another look at him and they kind of --

FLEISCHER: A lot of voters, all voters but including women, especially women, are disappointed in President Obama. They saw someone that did not pass they thought President Obama was. They were disappointed and add it up --

BORGER: Didn't you see an economic plan though? I mean, women are economic voters. And didn't they see a plan from Romney where they didn't see a plan from the president?

JONES: I think that's been overstated. Here's what I think was not brought up and should have been hit harder. Romney and Ryan did not support equal pay for equal work for women. That should be a disqualify, when you have somebody who says I want my vice president to be somebody who supposedly led better who does not believe in equal pay for equal women, what kind of person is Romney then going to put on the Supreme Court?

He puts somebody to be his vice presidential nominee who says a woman should be forced to bare the child of her rapist. That is who Romney has picked for his vice presidential nominee. Who will he put on Supreme Court? That was not raised during the last debate. You have extreme anti-woman position on the ticket.

FLEISCHER: Not just social -- there's a strong that Republicans always win married women. Go back decades. Married women vote has always not Republican. Single women vote is increasingly going Democratic.

The trick now is President Obama's got to stop his slide with married women. And Mitt Romney's got to minimize his losses with single women. The economic debate comes into play.

FOER: It's a common issue the economics through the social issues. If you looked at the Democratic convention, there was an extent to which the -- what was it like the 8:00 to 9:00 hour was all about women's issues because that plays an important role in mobilizing their base. But it also has appeal with suburban women who are essential to the Obama --

BORGER: Are you saying women are late and undecided and procrastinating voters because they are --

FLEISCHER: That's the breakdown of the undecided.

WATTS: We're going to psychoanalyze these numbers until the day after the election. And then we'll make a living for the next two months telling everybody what happened.

The fact is these numbers are real. The numbers are moving. And why are they moving? The president didn't perform in the debate. He allowed the governor to come off the ropes and now he's in the corner being defensive. The numbers are real.

BORGER: We're going to have to see more of that tonight. Van, I think you need to come up with some new adjectives to describe presidential candidates. I think you need to --

And we're going to be back in a minute with our unsolicited advice. I think a lot of it will be for these presidential candidates. So stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BORGER: And welcome back with our unsolicited advice. Let me go first to Frank. What's your advice?

FOER: I say enough passivity for Barack Obama but in a very specific way, which is that when he looked weak and passive in the last debate, it looked like he didn't have a record to defend.

It looked like the last for years were for not and the truth is the last four years he did a lot of impressive things and people are better off now than they were four years ago. He has to state that forthrightly or he will lose.

BORGER: Does he have to attack don't you think?

FOER: Of course, he has to attack and he especially has to defend when he's attacked. I think the town hall setting is bad for going on the offensive because you have to connect with the voters at the same time you have to deal with your opponent standing across the stage. The best thing he can do is make his own case in a very, very vigorous way.

BORGER: J.C.

WATTS: My unsolicited advice goes to Governor Romney and President Obama. Beware, it doesn't matter who wins in November. If the Washington redskins win nine football games, Robert Griffin III will be in the White House come January.

BORGER: I have nothing to say on that, honestly.

FLEISCHER: Tannehill, he'll be there.

BORGER: I'm still mourning my Nats.

JONES: My advice is to President Obama. He should defend his clean energy record. I cannot believe these Republicans who cheerlead every time an American energy company goes down.

President Obama's track record when it comes to clean energy investments is better than Bain Capital. Bain Capital had 80 percent success record. They say Romney's a genius.

President Obama 93 percent success record on clean energy, in Ohio alone there are 125,000 clean energy workers. If Romney gets in there, those jobs are history. He should stick up for his clean energy record and be proud of it.

If it were up to the Republicans in the space race, the first rocket that didn't make it off the platform they'd said forget about it and let the Russians go to the moon. He's got to stand up for his record.

BORGER: But, you know, in the last debate I thought that Romney actually was quite effective against the president on energy making it a question of teachers jobs turned it into sort of jobs. Money we spent on energy companies versus how many teachers' jobs those could have paid for? I would expect there's going to be more of the same of that.

JONES: He should defend himself on that. I think he has a lot to be proud of. There are 3.4 million green jobs in America right now. Nobody knows. He should be proud of that.

FLEISCHER: My advice would be to Mitt Romney for the debate tonight. What he needs to do is take advantage of that big second look that he got from the first debate.

Not only is he getting a second look, he's getting a second look with benefits. People are really saying I can go for this guy. So he needs to do tonight is connect with voters in a way that they see not only can I see you sitting behind the desk in the oval office, I want to see you at that desk.

BORGER: How do you do that?

FLEISCHER: When he gets asked an individual question about jobs, energy, the economy, he doesn't need to give a macro answer, on my first day in office, on my second, third, here's what I need to do and explain individual.

For example, if he gets asked about energy, he should say by opening the Keystone pipeline I will create x number of jobs for a lot of blue collar workers, high paying jobs and things also here in New York make us energy independent.

And that's something no matter where you are around the world you can relate to your cousin or brother getting a job and being free from Middle East reliance that individual tie from the macro policy connection.

BORGER: So what's the Obama response?

FOER: I thought the first day in office he was repealing Obama care and a hundred other things he was saying in the primaries in order to appease the right.

FLEISCHER: He's got a lot to do.

FOER: I like what Van's saying which is talk about the economics, talk about the stimulus and connect it to the economic patriotism and jobs that he has this record he can run on.

People would be in much worse shape if he hadn't had that stimulus. I recommend the new book, if you listen to this campaign. You wouldn't know any of it because Obama hasn't talked about it.

WATTS: He said three and a half years to talk about those things. People are aware of what's happened over the last three and a half years. He's losing ground three weeks out.

BORGER: But it's very --

FLEISCHER: People said at Hofstra four years ago at the debate he promised to create 5 million energy jobs. He's about 5 million short.

WATTS: We can go to North Dakota, we can go to Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alaska and we can see viable tangible visible real jobs.

BORGER: But here's the problem, it's very hard to run a campaign saying the things would have been worse if I hadn't been president.

JONES: That's why I think he should say things are good now in places like Ohio.

BORGER: Well, Ohio has a lower unemployment rate than a lot of other states. It's below the national average. So that might work in Ohio, but it's not going to work in other states. It's not going to work in Florida for example.

FLEISCHER: Also in Ohio don't forget President Obama has the auto bailout issue probably working for him pretty good in Ohio.

FOER: Yes.

FLEISCHER: But the energy issues work for Mitt Romney, coal, the whole corner of the state dependent on the coal economy which is creating jobs in Youngstown, the first steel mill that opened in Youngstown is now providing manufacturing for --

WATTS: Go to North Dakota where they're drilling for oil down there and taco john's making $15 an hour, getting a $2,000 bonus at McDonald's for new hires down in North Dakota because what's happening in the fossil fuel space. Those jobs are real. We don't have to talk about them. We see them.

BORGER: Let me get in my unsolicited advice because we only have 30 seconds left it so it won't be long. I'm going to say to the candidates tonight, I know women are really important in this election, but try not to pander.

Just try talking about the economy, talking about issues women care about without saying I love women, which is what we heard a lot of at the Republican convention, which was role model night.

It was women were role models for Chris Christie and everyone else. Some of my best friends are women and I like thinking I'm a role model for my children too. There's nothing wrong with that.

WATTS: Good luck, Gloria.

BORGER: Let's try to talk to women tonight without pandering to them. What do you think -- Wolf?

BLITZER: I think that's excellent advice. Go for it. Terrific. Let's see if they accept your advice.

BORGER: OK.

BLITZER: Guys, thank you.

Raising kids isn't the easiest job as all of us know, especially if you're doing it in the White House. So when it comes to discipline, who plays the heavy? The president of the United States or the first lady of the United States? Her answer. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: When President Obama and Governor Romney take to the debate stage in just a few hours, there will be at least one anxious person in the audience. That would be Michelle Obama.

The first lady and her brother, Craig, sat down with our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: 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 I don't look at the tapes afterwards. So I really would probably be the worst person to assess his style or his techniques because it's just hard to pay attention to all that.

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Jessica's joining us now live. Jessica, you didn't just discuss the business of debating. You also spoke at length about the personal side of life in the White House. What did she have to say?

YELLIN: That's right, Wolf. Well, you know, the first family famously makes a point of being home for their 6:30 dinner all together whenever they can.

For example, the first lady has been campaigning consistently, but they all try to meet at the White House to sit down with the girls for that meal every night. So I asked a little bit about family life and about parenting. Here's what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

OBAMA: That's very sweet.

YELLIN: He says the girls are grounded and great, but no kid is perfect.

OBAMA: No.

YELLIN: So when the time calls for it, which one of you plays the heavy?

OBAMA: You know, this is the thing I like about Barack. He's very good at reinforcing the rules and boundaries 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 when it comes to raising kids. It helps having a partner who believes in the same thing, respect, empathy, hard work, decency.

We were constantly telling our kids that the most important thing they can be is good decent people who treat other people with kindness and respect. So that's kind of the, you know, that's the overall governing principle in our household. We don't stray too far from it. And I don't have to worry about, you know, Barack not being, you know, a disciplinarian or me -- we balance each other out, yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: So I also in this interview, Wolf, asked the first lady how they -- what it takes to get grounded when you're in the White House, when you're growing up in the White House. That's in more of my interview coming up later tonight and then some more serious questions about the campaign.

I should point out that the first lady is going to be here with the president. She will have dinner with the president before the debate. We understand it will be a dinner of steak and potatoes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: By all accounts those girls, they are very, very grounded, the kids. No doubt about that. Did you have an opportunity though, we've been hearing suggestions throughout the course of the day today that Mrs. Obama joined in some of these debate preparations over the past day or two. Do we know that for a fact?

YELLIN: I have never been given the indication that she is a participant in the debate preparations. I've been told that she tries to keep herself at a remove from these things -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm not sure she was actually participating in the debate preparations, but was watching a little bit. That's what I heard. I don't know if that's true or not. We'll double check. We'll see if we can get confirmation of that if she watched.

I know it's difficult for any spouse to watch a spouse participate in the actual debate. I just wondered if she watched some of the debate preparations. Jessica, thanks very much.

An important note to our viewers, stay tuned to CNN for special coverage of tonight's town hall debate. Our own Candy Crowley will be moderating it.

Jessica will, of course, share more of her special interview with the first lady when our coverage begins right after THE SITUATION ROOM, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Tonight's debate comes amid growing Republican criticism of the president's handling of the September 11th Benghazi attack. In our next hour, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton takes the tough questions head on.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I take responsibility. I'm in charge of the State Department, 60,000 plus people all over the world, 275 posts.

(END VIDEO CLIP) (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The investigation into the deadly meningitis outbreak is growing right now across the United States. As are the number of products potentially to blame.

Kate is back monitoring that. She is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. What's the latest, Kate?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there, Wolf. At least 203 people have gotten sick and 15 have died after receiving steroid injections, but there are 200 other products in question. And that list is more than 70 pages long.

The FDA is urging anyone who used a product by the New England Compounding Center to be vigilant for signs of meningitis. But the FDA has not released the list of doctors and hospitals that received the center's products.

Also today, battery maker A123 became at least the fifth company to receive millions in stimulus funds and then file for bankruptcy. The Massachusetts based company makes lithium ion batteries used in hybrid and electric cars, power grids and military equipment. The company says it will sell some of its assets to Johnson Controls, an auto parts company based in Wisconsin.

And finally, two cruise ship workers are accused of coming home with more than a kilo of cocaine. Officers discovered the drugs during a routine crew inspection as these two 25-year-olds attempted to disembark in Florida.

One denied knowing anything about the drugs while the other admitted they were carrying them for a former crew member and had done it before. The name of the cruise ship incidentally allure of the seas. Not such a good idea -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Not such a good name. All right, Kate, thanks very much.