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The pressure is on.

President Barack Obama took the day off from the campaign trail Monday to focus exclusively on his critical debate with Mitt Romney on Tuesday.

It was a sensible decision. Obama needs the practice.

Obama’s senior aides say the president will step up his game: He will be more assertive, more engaged and more passionate in a debate where Obama desperately needs to show voters that he still has fire in his belly.

There’s a lot at stake: Simply put, another uninspiring debate could cost Obama the election. Some Democrats are privately calling Tuesday’s debate a make or break moment for Obama.

“The president is his own harshest critic and he knows Mitt Romney had a better night at the first debate,” campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “The American people should expect to see a much more energized President Obama making a passionate case for why he is a better choice for the middle class.”

Here’s a thought: The president should prepare for Tuesday’s debate the way he plays basketball: He is highly competitive, he plays to win, he has sharp elbows – and he’s been known to talk a little trash on the hardwood.

The president’s campaign advisors are promising that Obama will shine on the national stage Tuesday. Only time will tell but this much is clear: Obama urgently needs to make up lost ground from his lackluster debate performance last week where he spent more time looking down at the podium and scribbling notes.

One political commentator put it this way: One bad debate and you lose the battle. Two bad debates and you could lose the war.

Senior campaign adviser David Axelrod told Fox News Sunday that Obama plans to be more aggressive on Tuesday and will call Romney out for "walking away" from many of his ideas.

"Certainly the president is going to be willing to challenge him on it," Axelrod said. "We're going to give Gov. Romney another chance in this debate to square that circle."

Asked by a reporter during a stop at a Williamsburg campaign office how his debate prep is going, the president responded with a quick: “It is going great!”

Obama enters Tuesday’s debate playing catch up to Romney who enjoyed a bounce in the polls following last week’s debate. While most national polls show the race neck-in-neck, many surveys are also showing that Romney is slowly beginning to chip away at Obama’s lead in crucial swing states.

The president’s poor performance in last week’s debate clearly allowed Romney to climb back into the race. Romney’s aides say campaign contributions have increased significantly and crowds are swelling at Romney’s campaign rallies.

On Tuesday, Obama must slow Romney’s surge by challenging Romney point by point, but he must also make a clear and concise argument for why his vision for moving America forward is better than Romney’s plan.

The nation’s unemployment rate has dropped to 7.8 percent — a positive sign for the economy — and Obama should talk about the decline early and often.

One prominent black Democrat in Washington, D.C. said that Obama’s challenge is to “get out of his own way” and communicate with Americans in a succinct way that does not involve too many statistics, professorial rhetoric, and long-winded answers that have some of the president’s most steadfast supporters scratching their heads.

The Democrat also wondered aloud why it takes so much practice – and why it’s so complicated – for Obama to be plain-spoken during debates and talk to voters candidly without sounding like he’s giving a lecture.

Sometimes less is more.

At a sports bar in Columbia, Maryland Sunday night, one loyal Obama supporter said she just wants to hear Obama speak from the heart.

“I want to hear President Obama speak plainly about his vision for America,” she said.  “I want him to lay it out in a way that’s clear and understandable.”

Meanwhile, Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said he’s not concerned about media polls – he said he’s more interested in turning out the vote on Nov. 6.

“Every morning, the first thing I read are numbers,” Messina told reporters in a recent conference call.  “Not poll numbers. The numbers that mean something to me: registered voters, ballots requested and early votes cast.  Those numbers are telling the real story of this election.  We’ve never stopped growing the grassroots campaign that we revolutionized back in 2007 and 2008. And that grassroots campaign is a strategic advantage for us in the last days of this campaign.”

Messina said in the last two months, thousands of Obama supporters have opened their homes for debate-watching parties, adding that tens of thousands of new supporters have registered in just a single day.

“In a close election like this one, they are going to make the difference. So how do we know what that difference is?” Messina asked. “We gauge our ground game on verifiable numbers that tell the real story: voter registration and early voting.”

Messina’s call with journalists comes as a new Washington-Post/ABC News poll shows that likely voters are split  — 49 percent for Obama to 46 percent for Romney. The poll shows that traditional groups that backed Obama in 2008  — including Democrats, non-whites and younger voters — are far less interested in the campaign this year.

But 21 days before Election Day, Messina insists that the campaign’s foot soldiers will help put Obama over the top.

“This election is close,” Messina said. “Election Day is closing in on us. But this thing is far from over.”


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