10/14/2012 03:00 EDT | Updated 12/14/2012 05:12 EST

Obama, Romney, prepare for high-stakes second debate; Obama to be 'aggressive'

WASHINGTON - The next eight days could prove critical for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney — the two bitter rivals for the White House square off for their second and third prime-time debates, both well aware that their first faceoff dramatically altered a rollercoaster presidential race.

The two men took a break from campaigning on Sunday to undergo intensive debate preparation ahead of their next high-stakes clash, this time a town hall-style event on both foreign and domestic policy being held in Hempstead, N.Y., on Tuesday.

Obama was in Williamsburg, Va., at a posh resort on the James River. Various members of his debate prep team, including Romney stand-in Sen. John Kerry — toting a massive binder filled with colour-coded dividers — were seen milling about the resort on Sunday, hoping to ensure a far more spirited, engaged Obama shows up this week.

Romney was at his home in Boston, hoping to build upon his recent momentum by besting Obama yet again with another razor-sharp debate performance.

The battle for the White House is now a horse race in the aftermath of the two mens' first debate in Denver two weeks ago. The Real Clear Politics daily polling average has Romney slightly ahead of Obama nationally, with the Republican also surpassing or nipping at the heels of the president in several crucial battleground states that will determine the outcome of the Nov. 6 vote.

Obama plans to be more aggressive when he squares off against Romney this week, the president's top adviser said Sunday.

"He is going to make some adjustments on Tuesday," David Axelrod said on "Fox News Sunday."

Axelrod accused Romney of having "serially walked away from his own proposals" during the first showdown, an event watched by almost 70 million Americans.

"Certainly the president is going to be willing to challenge him on it," Axelrod said before paying Romney a left-handed compliment by calling him a "great salesman."

"That is what he did as a professional; he is very good at it," he said.

Romney's ready for the new and improved Obama, one of his top campaign officials said Sunday.

"The president can change his style, he can change his tactics, he can't change his record and he can't change his policies. And that's what this election is about," Ed Gillespie told CNN on Sunday.

The mens' final showdown is on Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Debates have become critically important this election cycle, with both men struggling for months to raise the enthusiasm levels of their supporters. Both campaigns have fretted that their support is shallow; Romney's enduring post-debate surge seems to suggest those concerns were not misplaced for the Obama campaign.

Only two politicians in 52 years came from behind and were propelled to the White House following strong televised debates — John F. Kennedy in '60 and George W. Bush in 2000 — and Romney is aiming to become the third. His campaign believes he could very well join the exclusive club after he significantly closed the gap on Obama after their Denver showdown.

The growing phenomenon of early voting in the United States is also lending a greater significance to debates. Almost a million voters have already cast ballots, with early voting in 2012 on pace to exceed 2008 numbers, when about 30 per cent of all votes nationally were cast before election day.

That means both candidates have fewer chances to change voters' minds about them in the event of an abysmal debate performance.

So far, at least, Obama seems to be leading among early voters. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll suggests the president leads Romney 59 per cent to 31 among early voters, although the sample size of the survey is relatively small.

Obama supporters were stunned by the president's disengaged debate performance in Denver on Oct. 3. In particular, they accused him of failing to challenge Romney's sudden step to the centre of the political spectrum after the Republican spent months promoting ultra-conservative positions on everything from social issues to debt reduction.

Apparently mindful of the charge, Obama has been attacking Romney for the shift in the wake of the Denver sparring match.

"After running for more than a year in which he called himself 'severely conservative,' Mitt Romney is trying to convince you that he was severely kidding," Obama said at a campaign rally in Florida late last week.

"Suddenly, he loves the middle class — can't stop talking enough about them. He loves Medicare, loves teachers. He even loves the most important parts of 'ObamaCare.' What happened?"

Gillespie, meantime, scoffed at the attacks.

Romney has been "consistent throughout this campaign," he said.