Things to Watch in Tonight's Debate

President Obama and Mitt Romney are set to meet at 9 p.m. EDT at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. for a 90-minute debate that, since the president was so listless in their first encounter two weeks ago, has assumed outsized importance in the campaign. Since the Oct. 3 clash in Denver, Romney has seized the momentum. The debate has a town-hall format, with questions, probably around a dozen, posed by a pool of undecided Long Island voters chosen by the Gallup polling organization.

Here are a few things to watch for:

Free Range Moderator?

Advisers in both campaigns have been freaking out at the possibility that the debate moderator, journalist Candy Crowley of CNN, might “go rogue” and ask follow-ups to the voters’ questions.

A detailed memorandum of understanding between the campaigns, which spells out who can stand where and other rules of conduct and personal space, says the moderator is forbidden to ask follow-up questions or in any way comment on the candidates’ answers. But neither Crowley nor the Commission on Presidential Debates itself is part of that agreement. So is the moderator bound by it? Crowley says she won’t be a “fly on the wall.”

Will Romney be warm or robotic with the town-hall questioners?

The town-hall format rewards empathy and relatability, two qualities that Romney has sometimes struggled with on the trail. Some of his experiences with audience questions are legendary for their awkwardness.

For instance, at the Iowa State Fair in the summer of 2011, Romney said, “Corporations are people, my friend” in response to a heckler who was pestering him about his record as a private-equity executive. He was trying to say that when business does well, stockholders and employees benefit, but never mind. It fed into the out-of-touch, rich guy narrative Democrats have been pushing. Interacting with regular voters at a coffee shop in Florida later that year, Romney joked to some out-of-work voters, “I’m unemployed too.” (He’s also worth an estimated $250 million.) And at a town-hall forum in Youngstown, Ohio in March, Romney told a young man who asked him about the high price of college that he should “shop around” for the best tuition prices.

Can Obama recover his mojo without alienating people?

By far, this is the biggest question hanging over the debate. Everybody knows that Obama has to be more aggressive than he was last time – he let the challenger get away with softening some of his more conservative positions and avoiding details of proposed policies, such as a plan to cut incomes taxes 20 percent beyond the Bush-era rates. Obama and his aides believe that Romney is, not to put too fine a point on it, a liar.

But it’s awfully hard to rip your opponent in that way – and to do it with a smile, all the while showing proper respect and deference to your regular-citizen questioner. Obama will need to guard against over-compensating as he tries to undo the damage from the first debate.

Courting of the ladies

Obama’s long longstanding lead in the national and battleground state polls, though narrower at some points than others during this campaign, has been built largely on a huge advantage with women voters. But a recent Gallup/USA Today poll in battleground states found Romney has closed the gender gap considerably after his Denver performance.

Obama advisers say that the poll has methodological failings. At any rate, many strategists expect Obama to try to draw a sharp contrast with Romney on abortion, contraception, education and other issues aimed at women – whether somebody asks about them or not.