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THE SITUATION ROOM

Romney, Obama Set for Second Presidential Debate; Interview With Stephanie Cutter

Aired October 16, 2012 - 18:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RONALD REAGAN, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Is this the time to unleash our one-liners?

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor. Now --

BILL CLINTON, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are in the grip of a failed economic theory and this decision better be about what kind of economic theory you want.

GEORGE W. BUSH, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I got to answer this.

Tell Tony Blair we're going alone. It denigrates an alliance to say we're going alone, to discount their sacrifices. You cannot lead (ph).

BARACK OBAMA, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Countdown to the second presidential debate. President Obama and Mitt Romney facing off at a critical moment in this race for the White House.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "AC 360": The stakes tonight, higher than ever. Mitt Romney has the momentum and the pressure is on the president. I'm Anderson Cooper.

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

It's debate night in America. Potentially pivotal skirmish in an election battle turned upside-down over the last dozen days or so.

COOPER: It's been a remarkable dozen days. The last time they met, President Obama held a slight advantage in the polls, but his lead evaporated in the days after that first face-off and now the race is all tied up, with Mitt Romney making critical gains nationally and also in crucial battleground states.

BLITZER: CNN's Candy Crowley moderates tonight's debate, and the format includes questions from the audience.

CNN's national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, is over at Hofstra University on Long Island with the Romney campaign -- Jim.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Romney campaign officials tell CNN the GOP nominee would like to focus on the economy and Libya tonight and they also say he has been brushing up on his town hall debate skills, working not only with a stand-in moderator, but multiple questioners during his practice sessions. But this is a format that he's dealt with before.

(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: And even though we're hours from the debate, the spinning has already started in this room where we're standing right now, Wolf.

Ohio Senator Rob Portman was in the room not too long ago, calling his home state a dead heat between President Obama and Mitt Romney, and I think the Obama campaign was listening, Wolf, because not too far behind Senator Portman was Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. He walked into the room to say that any talk of a dead heat in Ohio is a sign that the Romney campaign is losing.

It's also a sign that they're looking beyond tonight's debate and those battleground states to come -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm already getting dizzy, Jim, thinking about all the spinning that is going on.

For the viewers who might not appreciate the so-called spin room, explain what's going on there.

ACOSTA: Well, it's one of those time-honored the traditions of debate. And I can walk around a little bit, if I can do that for just a few moments.

But this cavernous room, if I can call it that, here on the campus of Hofstra University will be filled in about four-and-a-half- hours from now, Wolf, when the spinners come in from the various campaigns and start talking to us, the press. And as we have seen over the last couple of debates, not only the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, but that second debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, sometimes it's the debate after the debate among those spin-meisters that can really shape the narrative of this campaign in the days that follow. And so we will be looking for that later on this evening.

BLITZER: We certainly will. Jim Acosta's going to be a busy guy.

Anderson Cooper will be busy as well.

Anderson, good to have you here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COOPER: It's good to be here, Wolf.

Let's bring in CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

Dana, you have been talking to people close to Mitt Romney. You have got some new information. How is he spending these few final hours before the debate?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Trying to rest and relax, as much as possible. You know, we talked before the first debate about how important it is for Romney, personally, to be with his family. And that is certainly true today.

We're told that five, all five of his grown sons are here, to be with him. Two of them, Josh and Ben, are going to be in the debate hall, with Ann Romney to actually watch in person this town hall debate. And he did spend some time, I'm told by a source familiar with his preps, prepping today, not like in a formal way that he has for the past two-and-a-half days, but he did spend some time reviewing.

But for the most part, he wanted to have some levity, some rest and relaxation and relaxing time to get mentally prepared for tonight's debate -- Anderson.

COOPER: A picture that was released watching with his wife a game of Jenga being played. That seemed very stressful to me. But I guess that's who he relaxes.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Expectations probably for Romney are probably even higher this debate than they were the first time because of his strong performance in the first debate. How does that play into his preparations for tonight?

BASH: Well, look, the Romney campaign, they know that full well. Romney himself knows that the expectations are even higher.

They're trying to spin it as the fact that it wasn't -- the big thing that happened in the last debate was that the president just didn't perform and so that is sort of playing into the debate prep, but for the most part, because this is a town hall debate, you saw some of the examples of this in Jim Acosta's piece, they really I'm told have been spending almost half, if not more of the time focusing on style over substance, really making sure that the former governor is aware of how close he gets to a voter who asks a question.

Don't go too close to him so that according to the source, he's not in their grill, or too far so that he seems distant, which is the last thing he wants to do.

I spoke with one of Romney's former debate coaches, Brett O'Donnell, someone who coached John McCain and George W. Bush for their presidential town halls. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: What do you think that he needs to do to keep his mojo going?

BRETT O'DONNELL, DEBATE COACH: Yes, I just think staying fresh, you know, remembering what he did well in this debate and building on that, and then, also, making sure he understands now that he's in the town hall debate, it's a little bit different tenor. Can't go on the offense quite as much.

BASH: How does he maintain his cool when the president tries to get under his skin?

O'DONNELL: Well, I'm sure that Senator Portman has been exposing him to the things now that the president might do in this next debate. And he's got to be prepared to keep his cool. And part of that is mental focus, you know, not lapsing and really what I call taking the bait.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: And one interesting note on that. I have spoken to people who were involved in this debate prep, and they say that Senator Portman does tend to, playing the role of President Obama, be very, very tough on Mitt Romney, but that he didn't change very much from the last time, because they expected the president to be very aggressive and very direct and tough on the former governor, and he wasn't.

So they basically prepared Romney just like they did last time, except the difference is this time, they do expect the president to go after him much more aggressively.

COOPER: And I think -- I spoke to one of -- a Romney debate coach a while ago, who was saying back when he had advised then, well, Senator McCain, candidate McCain, they actually built kind of a model of the town hall debate place, where that town hall debate was going to take place.

So I don't think they have done anything like that for Governor Romney, but they really have focused on body language and kind of how to interact with the crowd and also pivot to the president?

BASH: Very, very much so, not only how he interacts with the voters. I'm told that one of the things they focus on in debate prep was to remember that the president could be wandering around. He has to be aware of where the president's movements are, because it is such a free-flowing event.

You remember four years ago, talking about John McCain, he was so comfortable in the town hall format, because he had done it so many times in New Hampshire, that he sort of forgot that this wasn't his own and he was wandering around as the questions were being asked, just like he did in his own town halls, and that, you know, produced a lot of spoofs, including on "Saturday Night Live" of him sort of wandering around saying, where's my dog?

It didn't come across the way it used to. So those are the kind of things that you may not think that they're focusing on or that they need to focus on, but they're absolutely critical, particularly in this kind of format, the town hall.

COOPER: I had forgotten about that "Saturday Night Live" skit. It was actually quite funny.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Dana, thanks very much.

We also of course want to find out about how President Obama has been preparing, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we certainly do.

And I think one of the things both of these candidates have to remember, they will be on television even when they're not speaking. We will see their faces in that so-called split-screen. They have to be very sensitive to that all the time.

So how is the president of the United States gearing up for this crucial contest tonight? We are going to be speaking live with his deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter. She's standing by.

Also, more on tonight's different debate format, how questions were chosen for this town hall meeting.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Obama campaign attack ads came under attack today by the Republican vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan. Let's talk about that and more with Obama's deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter. She's over at the scene of tonight's debate at Hofstra University in New York.

Stephanie, thanks very much for coming in.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, OBAMA 2012 DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: All right. Let me play for you what Paul Ryan said today about the message that the president will be delivering. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You have to understand, the only way the president thinks he can win is if he can convince you to really dislike Mitt Romney. And so he can win by default. It's all he's got, it's as cynical as it gets, and you're not going to fall for it, are you?

CROWD: No!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Do you want to respond to the vice presidential nominee?

CUTTER: Well, you know, I think we are, you know, hours away from a debate. The president is going to lay out, you know, where we have been over the last four years, make a passionate case for what we have accomplished, but then lay out where he wants to take the country over the next four years.

That's the case he's making for reelection. Now, of course, we're running against Mitt Romney. It's not our job to make him unlikable. It's our job to make sure that his record is being accurately presented. And if it makes Mitt Romney unlikable because his policies outsource jobs overseas or that he opposed the auto bailout, then, you know, that's a question for Mitt Romney to answer.

But these are legitimate issues to discuss. So we're looking forward to having this conversation tonight.

BLITZER: I suspect he's going to bring up the issue of the bankruptcy now of another electric car company that received, what, about $250 million in federal money, in federal grants, A123 Systems. Andrea Saul from the Mitt Romney campaign issued a statement: "A123 Systems' bankruptcy is yet another failure for the president's disastrous strategy of gambling away billions of taxpayers dollars on a strategy of government-led growth that simply does not work."

So, the question is, does the president accept some responsibility, because he made a big deal about this company only a couple years ago and now it's going broke?

CUTTER: No, Wolf, the question is whether or not we want to cede these industries to India and China.

And the president says, no, we're not. We're going to develop these industries here in the United States. We're going to invest in clean energy. And that's what he's been doing. Now, Mitt Romney, if he brings it up in tonight's debate, he's got some things to answer for himself.

One, his budget completely divests in clean energy. But, two, as Massachusetts governor, he had some government investments in energy companies, but they went bankrupt. So he has a record that he's going to have to explain.

But at the end of the day, the president is not going to cede these industries to India and China. It has to do with America's energy independence and it has to do with creating good manufacturing jobs here in this country.

BLITZER: On the sensitive issue of Libya and Benghazi, the killing of four Americans, including the ambassador, Secretary Clinton in an interview with CNN now says she's taking responsibility for the way it's been handled. She stepped up. Some people think she was earlier thrown under the bus.

Erick Erickson, the conservative blogger, a CNN contributor, tweeted, he wrote today, he said on RedState.com: "I do hear that President Obama will let Hillary Clinton tour a tire factory this week so she can at least match a dress to the tire tread, but one way or the other, Hillary Clinton is now going under the Obama bus."

What did you think of Hillary Clinton's statement?

CUTTER: Well, first of all, Wolf, you know, a tweet from Erick Erickson, you know, being the, you know, objective source that he is about this administration, doesn't make it true.

Now, the fact that Secretary Clinton said that she takes responsibility reflects what the president has said. We all take responsibility, from the president on down whenever there's a diplomat's life at risk, whenever there's an American life at risk. But if you want to take responsibility, if you want to make sure that this never happens again, then you have the to do what the administration is doing.

You have to investigate how it happened to ensure that it never happens again and you have to investigate and find the terrorists and bring them to justice. That's what the president, the vice president, Secretary Clinton, the entire national security team is doing. So I imagine this is going to be a topic tonight, and we look forward to having that discussion with Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: And I assume it's going to be a topic tonight as well. But what I hear you saying is the president is also taking responsibility, not just the secretary of state?

CUTTER: Absolutely. He's the president of the United States. Everybody takes responsibility when an American's life is at stake. BLITZER: There was a real surprising quote from Neera Tanden in "New York" magazine. She's the head of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank here in Washington, close to the White House.

And I'm going to read it to you, because it just jolted me when I read about it earlier in the day. "People say the reason Obama wouldn't call Clinton is because he doesn't like him. The truth is, Obama doesn't call anyone, and he's not close to almost anyone. It's stunning that he's in politics because he really doesn't like people."

Now, Neera has subsequently apologized for that. She said, "I was trying to say how President Obama, who I admire greatly, is a private person, but I deeply regret how I said it. I apologize."

But a lot of folks have made the point that the president is aloof. He's not schmoozing with members of Congress enough, all those kinds of points. And I want you to respond to that.

CUTTER: Well, first of all, Wolf, Neera did apologize. Neera is a good friend of this administration. She has a lot to do with the fact that we have health care reform and millions of Americans can now count on their health care.

Now, in terms of the president's personality, of course he's not aloof. He has worked across the aisle to get things done, whether it's the payroll tax cut, cutting spending by $1 trillion. At the end of the day, he's about results. And that's his number one priority.

BLITZER: Did she have a point in her initial statement, which obviously surprised a lot of us?

CUTTER: Well, I think that she clarified that, Wolf. I think she said that what she was trying to get across is that he's a private person.

BLITZER: He is a private person. He's also the president of the United States. And he's going to be in this debate tonight. When you're president of the United States, privacy for all practical matters seems to go away, as all of us know.

You have worked for a few presidents, so you appreciate that as well.

Thanks very much, Stephanie, for coming in.

CUTTER: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Stephanie Cutter joining us from the Obama campaign.

We heard from Kevin Madden from the Romney campaign in the last hour -- Anderson.

COOPER: We have got new information, Wolf, on Mitt Romney's preparation, this brand-new picture of him eating dinner with his wife and sons -- much more on his debate strategy still ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The courts have cleared the way for early voting for everyone in Ohio.

(NEWS BREAK)

COOPER: CNN's special coverage of tonight's presidential debate starts of course at the top of the hour.

And up next, it is not just what they say or even how they say it. We will look at the importance of body language in tonight's debate. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's not just what the candidates say that matters in tonight's presidential debate. It's also how they say it. Body language plays a huge role in how President Obama and Mitt Romney come across.

CNN's John Berman got some expert advice for these candidates.

So, John, what do they need to do?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They need to do a lot, because particularly these town meeting style debates, they are full-body experiences. We're talking face, we're talking hands, even feet.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN (voice-over): The first presidential debate was not so much a master class in political science, public policy, or foreign relations. No, it was a seminar in high school anatomy, his mouth, his teeth, his face.

JANINE DRIVER, PRESIDENT, BODY LANGUAGE INSTITUTE: If the volume was turned down on your television set, you would have thought that Mitt Romney was the president.

BERMAN: Janine Driver is the president of the Body Language Institute, and when it comes to body language, she says the president had a lot to say, most of it not good, the look-down.

DRIVER: You could be seen as someone who's not trustworthy. You could be seen as someone that is holding something back, someone who is nervous, someone who is anxious.

BERMAN: The smirk.

DRIVER: What is called contempt. He did a little bit of a smirk. One side of his mouth went up in and in. That's moral superiority.

BERMAN: And one you might not have noticed, the leg cross.

DRIVER: It comes across as not solid footing. He is not on solid ground. He does not have both feet in the game.

BERMAN: Her advice for the president going into round two?

DRIVER: Both feet flat on the ground, be yourself. Have the chin up if that's your thing, and connect with someone, understand, connect with Mitt Romney. Understand your eye contact is important.

BERMAN: Also, work the hands, what's called basketball hands.

DRIVER: You will see a lot of politicians do this, power, authority, and confidence. If we explode it, you will get this basketball steeple and it's really bigger and bigger and bigger.

So it will start here. And this is power, authority and confidence with likability and heart and passion.

BERMAN: As for Mitt Romney, sure, he had a lot to be happy about, but he might want to wipe that smile off his face, at least a bit.

The perma-smile.

DRIVER: Lose the perma-smile and listen to what's being said. Just feel what that feels like. If you're angry with what the president is saying, I want to see anger on the brow.

BERMAN: As both candidates know, the language of politics is often unspoken. And sometimes the best political punch is a body slam.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: And remember, with the town-meeting-style debate, they will be in a well. You will be able to see their full bodies, so there is that much more to worry about. Now, Anderson, I'll throw it over to you with basketball hands.

COOPER: With basketball hands, thanks very much. Power and authority.

We've got our whole panel here, contributors and analysts. David Gergen, the fact there aren't podiums, it does present a whole new set of challenges. You can be seeing your whole body, and you also have to think about what you're doing while the other candidate is talking.

GERGEN: That's absolutely true. Here's what the situation is. They're going to be in high-backed chairs, and they can sit in the chair and answer the question or they can roam when they're answering. And that has both opportunities and perils.

COOPER: You don't want to roam too much, which John McCain was accused of doing.

GERGEN: Yes, you don't want. But the roaming gives you an opportunity, as Bill Clinton demonstrated, to go up to the voter and to have a sort of almost electoral exchange, almost magically empathetic exchange. But the peril is what Al Gore shows, and that is you try to be an alpha male, you get into the other guy's space, like he did with George W. Bush, you can pay a price for that.

COOPER: It's interesting, though, because for President Obama, you do -- and both the candidates, you want to connect with the voter or the citizen who's asked you the question, but at the same time, you need, especially President Obama, needs to pivot also to attack Mitt Romney, doesn't he?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's exactly right. And it's that fact that there's human beings in there who are undecided voters and aren't like the typical political people. That means you have to soften everything you say. You cannot just be, bang, bang, bang. That's what voters are tired of. That's a test for both candidates.

BORGER: They're also kind of penned in. I think there are rules. It's sort of like the fence for your dog that you can't see. You know, you're not supposed to go outside a certain boundary, right?

GERGEN: You get a shock when you go...

FLEISCHER: Is one a cat and one a dog?

BORGER: No, but there is a boundary. You're not supposed to get in someone's face, the way Al Gore did --

But with that Al Gore thing, George Bush had -- my understanding is he'd actually prepared for that, during the debate thing, because people had watched other Al Gore debate, and Al Gore had done the move in. I'd read that. I don't know if either of you guys know about that. But...

FLEISCHER: Well, if you're asking me, it's nothing that I recall from 2000. We knew Al Gore liked to kind of roam the stage and do that thing, but nobody anticipated he was going to try to cross the 50-yard-line and try to use physical intimidation. And Bush just kind of gave him -- like that.

COOPER: The wink.

FLEISCHER: It backfired.

COOPER: And then that awkward smile of Al Gore's. Yes.

CASTELLANOS: It actually -- it actually is something that they'd gone over in debate prep for that, but I think because Gore had tried to kind of occupy his opponents' space before in debates. But it's amazing how natural all of us are in these situations, until we start thinking about being natural.

COOPER: Right.

CASTELLANOS: And that's the hardest part, working with a candidate, to prepare for something like this. You want to go through all the prep and all the technique early, so that the days before the debate, they're not thinking process, they're not thinking technique. They're thinking substance, they're thinking about connecting.

COOPER: Who would you guys rather be going into tonight's debate? President Obama or Mitt Romney?

JONES: I'd rather -- I'd rather be Obama. Because for one thing, you know, it's interesting how we kind of talk about this as sort of like almost theater.

And the reality is, I think, you know, Mitt Romney kind of did his own town-hall meeting on videotape before. And he made the 47 percent comment. And I think that is sort of the backdrop for Mitt Romney. There's more pressure on him now to be relatable. Whereas I think Obama actually is relatable.

COOPER: But you say that's the backdrop for Mitt Romney. Maybe in some Democrats' minds. But I mean, I think for the 60 million people who watched the last presidential debate, that's probably more in their mind, that Mitt Romney, than what was in that video from a long time ago.

MYERS: You know, I think the last debate was all about Mitt Romney. People -- the expectations were on him. You know, people didn't think he would do particularly well. The whole game was riding on his performance. People were saying, if he doesn't do well, it's over.

This time it's all about President Obama. It's all about his performance. He needs to come in there with the sun on his face, to optimistically talk to the country. Not against Mitt Romney so much, but fighting for the middle class and the American public. And we'll see if he rises to the occasion, as Mitt Romney did ten days ago.

CASTELLANOS: I think there's more pressure on President Obama this time. However, when you're playing for the presidency of the free world, I think there's a moderate amount of pressure on anybody.

COOPER: Probably a dumb question.

We've got to take a quick break. We've seen how much impact debate can have. Ahead, we've got new details on the president's plan of attack tonight, after the break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Getting ready for debate night in America. It is going to be a fascinating night of politics here. The pressure is really on. David Gergen, the question I asked before, who would you rather be, President Obama or Mitt Romney coming in?

GERGEN: President Obama.

COOPER: Really?

GERGEN: I say that because I think that this is -- Van said it was -- this is almost theater. It's not almost theater. It is theater. The -- Franklin Roosevelt once met Orson Welles and said, "Orson, you and I are the two best actors in the country."

So -- so it's going to have a lot of substance, but I think the real question is the advantage often goes to the person who has more natural empathy and can talk to people easily. And while both Romney and the president are sort of remote figures, they're more introverted, I think President Obama is more naturally comfortable talking to regular people and understanding their stories.

He's worked with a lot of middle-class Americans. He's worked with poor Americans. He knows that. And I think that does give him a leg up.

Mitt Romney has done this, as well, and he's done a lot of town halls, but I think Barack Obama is a little closer to the Clinton model. I think Clinton was the best at it.

COOPER: If President Obama does not do well tonight...

GERGEN: Yes.

COOPER: ... I mean, yes. We've seen the polls -- I mean, have you ever seen a poll shift like this. Has anybody ever seen a poll shift like this, based on an early debate performance?

CASTELLANOS: Reagan/Carter.

FLEISCHER: Well, this is the Romney opportunity. This is where Mitt Romney can really get rolling and take the first two games of a playoff in a three-game series. And if he does that, then...

COOPER: I'm nodding like I know what you're talking about. Sports analogies are right over my head. But keep going.

MYERS: I'm sure it'll make sense.

FLEISCHER: But that's his chance tonight. He went from before the first debate, being, "I need a second look," to now people saying, "I can see you in the Oval Office." If he tonight says -- has people saying, "I want you in the Oval Office," it's a huge night. That's his opportunity.

BORGER: I think it's a base issue for the Democrats, too, because the Democratic base was so dispirited after the last debate. "Why should I fight for you when you're not fighting for yourself" was the question that was being asked.

Tonight if they don't see that passion, if they don't see that fight, it will be a problem for Democrats, particularly when they want to get their base enthusiasm up, get them out to the polls voting. That's an issue. So I think there's a lot riding on this.

COOPER: There was an interesting thing I read just the other day. I think it was from Stan Greenberg, a pollster, saying that Mitt Romney did so well because people saw him as the change candidate. Do you think that's true? At that debate. At the first debate. MYERS: I think it is true. I mean, I think that he came and presented a message that people hadn't heard before from him, which is maybe a bit of a problem tonight, but when you're the president, you have to defend not only -- you have to defend your record and you have to try to paint a vision for the future.

President Obama did some of the former, but didn't do much of the latter. And that was a problem for him, whereas -- whereas, you know, Governor Romney could run against everything the president had done and said, and therefore ergo, becomes the change candidate.

CASTELLANOS: And President Obama has spent quite a few months and many millions of dollars telling us that there's this Mitt Romney out there who, you know, had horns and a tail and would eat your children, and that wasn't the guy who showed up. It was, in fact, a very reasonable Republican. So I think that's one of the things that helped Mitt Romney a lot.

But also, we shouldn't underestimate Mitt Romney tonight. This is not only a guy who has -- yes, he's elite. We have intellectual elite against financial elite tonight. But this is also a man who has gone into a lot of people's homes over the years, out of sight, helping people who are sick, helping people who have had financial troubles. He's been one on one with a lot of folks who have been in need and had a lot of problems.

If you see him on the campaign trail lately, he's telling a lot of stories about the people who have affected him in this campaign. I think we're going to see that tonight.

JONES: For me, I think that you can see the opposite mistake. I think Obama last time was preparing to debate the Mitt Romney who was debating Republicans. He wasn't prepared to debate the Mitt Romney who debates Democrats. It was a totally different Mitt Romney.

You can see the same thing happen again now, where Romney thinks that the guy he met last time is the guy he's going to meet this time. And I think you're going to see a very different President Obama. I think he's very competitive...

COOPER: It sounds like the Romney campaign has been preparing for that in their debate preparation.

Let's go to Wolf. We'll have more with our panel after a short break.

BLITZER: Yes, we will, Anderson. Thank you.

Please be sure to stay with CNN for complete special coverage of tonight's town-hall presidential debate, moderated by our own Candy Crowley. Our special coverage begins right here in a few minutes, 7 p.m. Eastern.

But first, uncommitted voters are asking the questions tonight. We're taking you behind the scenes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Looking at a live picture of the debate hall, the rematch. This is where it will take place in a little while. We're counting down to tonight's second presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Tonight's contest at New York's Hofstra University is a very different setup from the previous face-off. Our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, is on the scene for us.

All right, Dan, what can we expect tonight?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's going to be a different kind of debate, Wolf. As you know, in other debates like the last one, the moderator is asking all the questions.

This time, it's a town-hall format, so you could get that unexpected, unknown kind of funny question from an uncommitted voter. These are voters who either have no preference at all or have a preference, but could be swayed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice-over): President Obama...

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I feel fabulous!

LOTHIAN: ... and GOP nominee Mitt Romney will take center court at Hofstra University's basketball arena. But the audience will be driving this town-hall-style debate.

FRANK FAHRENKOPF, CO-CHAIRMAN, COMMISSION ON PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES: Right around in the semicircle, there will be 80 individuals from Long Island, who live around the campus here in Hofstra, who say that they haven't made their mind up yet, and while they have made their mind up yet, they may be willing to change, depending upon what the campaign says.

LOTHIAN: They've already submitted their questions, each written on two separate note cards. One they keep. The other goes to the moderator, who divides them into two stacks -- foreign policy and domestic issues -- then decides which ones make the cut. Fifteen to 20 are expected to be asked.

The uncommitted voters were tracked down by the Gallup organization, which has been selecting audiences for presidential town-hall-style debates since 1992.

It all begins with a random phone call.

FRANK NEWPORT, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, GALLUP POLL: The respondent doesn't know why we're calling. They think it's just the normal Gallup polls. And then if they qualify, that's when our interviewers will say, "We'd like to invite you to participate in the debate."

LOTHIAN (on camera) Where are they now? You won't find them walking around out here. They're being kept away from the public and the press, sequestered like a jury. They began their day with closed- door meetings at an undisclosed, off-campus location, followed by a walk-through here at the debate hall. CNN has learned they're now being kept in a room in the back until show-time.

(voice-over) Despite protests from both campaigns, debate moderator CNN's Candy Crowley will have the option on following up on questions from the audience.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: If the town-hall question is about apples, and the answer is about oranges, then it seems to me as a journalist and certainly as a moderator and within that purview is, wait a second, that was -- she asked apples and you answered oranges. Let's try this again.

LOTHIAN: This format also gives the candidates the freedom to get out of their chairs and move around. That means they're more exposed to body language flubs and have to avoid invading personal space like Al Gore did to President George W. Bush 12 years ago.

But Frank Newport says town halls are as real as it gets.

NEWPORT: They're going to actually have human beings, right? Not journalists -- not that journalists aren't human beings, but we're having average voters who are going to come up and ask questions. Because I think those are the people who are going to be voting. And why not?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: Now, Newport -- Newport says that the process of vetting these participants, getting them ready for debate night has gotten much -- gotten much more complicated. He says when they first got started back in the '90s, these folks didn't show up here until about 5 p.m., just a few hours before the debate started -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Lothian on the scene for us. Thank you.

If you live in a swing state -- let's say Ohio or Florida -- you're probably being inundated with political ads as election day approaches.

Let's bring in our chief national correspondent John King over at the magic wall. These ads in these states, what do they tell us about the race?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's a lot of this back and forth you're going to hear in the debate tonight. You're already seeing play out in the ads where the campaigns are adjusting.

A big poll today showing a disappearing of the so-called gender gap. Now the Obama campaign disputes that. Other polls show there's still a bit of an Obama advantage when it comes to women voters, but the campaign clearly has seen this coming. Look at this Obama ad in Jacksonville, Florida. It gets off the economy and makes this appeal. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As you're making your decision, maybe you're wondering what to believe about Mitt Romney. Well, when it comes to protecting your access to birth control and the basic women's health-care services Planned Parenthood provides, one thing we must remember is this...

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'll cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He'll cut it off.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A clear effort there by the Obama campaign to try to restore its standing among especially suburban women in Florida and other states.

Governor Romney has focused mostly on independents and on the economy, trying to convince people -- and he will do this tonight at Hofstra, I'm told -- that President Obama made a lot of promises four years ago and hasn't kept them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Four years ago, Barack Obama was concerned about America's economy.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When wages are flat, prices are rising, more and more Americans are mired in debt. Our economy as a whole suffers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But under President Obama, 8.6 unemployment, record foreclosures, 600,000 more Floridians in poverty. He focused on Obama care instead of jobs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's part of the debate playing in Florida. Want to move you now to the state of Ohio. Another thing you'll see, Wolf, is especially a point-counter point. Youngstown, it's over in this part of the state. Blue collar, old coal country, steel country. Governor Romney went on the attack early.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Obama is ruining the coal industry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The policies that the current administration has got is attacking my livelihood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're wanting to close these mines down. I've got little ones at home, a wife that needs me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have 250 years of coal. Why would wouldn't we use it? Utility bills.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Governor Romney runs that ad, it begins to work. Blue- collar areas over here, the Obama campaign, counter point.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seen these new ads where Mitt Romney says he's a friend of coal country? This is the guy who wants to keep tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. The same guy who had a Swiss Bank account and millions in tax havens like Bermuda and the Caymans. And on coal? Well, here's what he said as governor outside a coal-fired power plant.

ROMNEY: I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant -- that plant killed people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You see there, Wolf, they're the aggressive point-counter point. Millions and millions and millions being spent right now, mostly in eight or nine states. Fascinating to watch. Three weeks left in this campaign. The president obviously needs a strong debate performance tonight but time is short to spend your money, to pick the theme of your ads.

We've got three weeks of back and forth, but the campaigns have to make some pretty consequential decisions about where to spend their money and they have make some of those decisions very quickly and also what to say.

BLITZER: It's clear they have tons of money. It seems almost quaint a few years ago when we were talking about public financing of these campaigns. There are some suggestions now the Obama campaign may wind up with more than, what, $1 billion of raised money. That doesn't even include the super PACs.

KING: It's on a trend to spend $1 billion, and given how close the race is and given the fact that Governor Romney has momentum right now, I don't think there's any reason to believe they won't pass that number.

Governor Romney is close behind. He's got plenty of money, too. And you mentioned the super PACs. One of the pieces we will see, the chess game after the second debate. Romney has momentum -- we're going to talk more about it later -- in a lot of these swing states. But before the first debate, we were saying in the president's favor.

The campaigns have to make very tough decisions. Remember, 2004, John Kerry pulls out of Ohio, decides to spend his money elsewhere, loses an election, second thoughts.

KING: Yes. And he wound up with money in the bank he should have spent, probably. If he would have spent in Ohio, he might have been president of the United States. All right, John. Thanks very much.

Debate night in America straight ahead. We have an exclusive interview. In fact, we have exclusive interviews with the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, and Ann Romney. And fresh reporting on President Obama's plan of attack, and Mitt Romney's defense.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The presidential election is getting a little risque. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A few weeks until the election and the clothes are coming off.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you don't...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... trust me...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm called Obama.

MOOS: The most naked aggression comes from a progressive group attacking Mitt Romney over issues such as abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... you don't...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... trust me...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... with my body...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... why...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... should I...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... trust...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... you...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... with my...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... country?

MOOS: And speaking of bodies.

OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN, SINGER (singing): Let's get physical.

MOOS: Olivia Newton John's old song has been turned into...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): Let's get fiscal, fiscal.

MOOS: Instead of Obama Girl from four years ago... UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): ... because I got a crush on Obama...

MOOS: ... it's Paul Ryan Girl lip syncing.

MEREDITH WALKER, PAUL RYAN GIRL (singing): Let me see those baby blues. Let me see those baby blues, that chiseled chest.

MOOS: Meredith Walker is definitely mocking Obama Girl.

(on camera) The girl in Paul Ryan Girl really is a Ryan/Romney supporter. She says ever since she was 12, she wanted to be Ann Coulter when she grew up.

ANN COULTER, CONSERVATIVE AUTHOR/COMMENTATOR: At least when right-wingers rant, there's a point.

MOOS: Meredith told FOX News that the director of the video...

WALKER: Encouraged me to be goofy and silly and kind of go "Saturday Night Live."

(singing) Let's get fiscal, fiscal.

MOOS: From fiscal to frisky.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Uncle Obama.

MOOS: Hold it right there. "Uncle Obama" gets a little too risque with double entendres about bananas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I give it to my monkey. I give it to my monkey. So very happy.

MOOS: Not everyone is happy with Sister Deborah, the performer in the African nation of Ghana: "Garbage." "This song makes me uncomfortable."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are asking for a banana from the American president to give to your monkey. How disrespectful.

MOOS: Wait a minute.

DEBORAH VANESSA OWUSU-RONSU, SINGER: It has nothing to do with the president, no. And nothing to do with politics.

MOOS: Sister Deborah says Obama has become a common name in Ghana, ever since President Obama took office. And the Obama in this song was inspired by a popular guy in the marketplace whose nickname is Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Who is that handsome fellow?

MOOS: And she really does have a pet monkey. As for President Obama... OWUSU-RONSU: I know he's a cool person, and I don't expect him to get offended. But if he is offended in any way, I do apologize. It's not about him.

MOOS: So all you critics, surrender. Just say uncle.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Uncle Obama.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Uncle Obama.

MOOS: ... New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)