By Julie Pace and Steve Peoples
BURLINGTON, Mass. — As Mitt Romney's campaign claimed new momentum in the race for the White House, President Barack Obama's political advisers on Sunday promised the incumbent would unleash his more aggressive side in Tuesday's debate to prevent their Republican rival from delivering another "magical and theatrical performance."
Obama and Romney hunkered down in private debate preparation for much of the day as aides offered a pre-debate sparring match on television.
They disagreed on much, but agreed that Romney bested Obama in their first meeting nearly two weeks ago — a performance that shifted the direction of a race that had favored the president but has since tightened in national and battleground state polls.
"He knows Mitt Romney had a better night at the first debate," Obama spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said of the president. "The American people should expect to see a much more energized President Obama."
Ed Gillespie, senior adviser to the Romney campaign, quipped that the former Massachusetts governor would be prepared regardless of Obama's adjustments: "The president can change his style. He can change his tactics. He can't change his record."
Obama spent the day with aides in swing state Virginia, while Romney stayed close to his Boston-area home ahead of Tuesday's prime-time, town hall-style debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., exactly three weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
Romney's advisers suggested the Republican nominee would continue to moderate his message — in tone, if not substance — as he did in the Oct. 3 meeting to help broaden his appeal to the narrow slice of undecided voters. In recent days, Romney has promised his tax plan would not benefit the wealthy, emphasized his work with Democrats as Massachusetts governor and downplayed plans to strengthen the nation's abortion laws.
He told an Iowa newspaper this week, for example, that he would not pursue abortion-related legislation if elected. That's in direct conflict with last year's pledge to the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, to cut federal funding from Planned Parenthood and support legislation to "protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion."
"I think Mitt Romney's performance was, indeed, magical and theatrical," Obama senior campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said of the first debate. "Magical and theatrical largely because for 90 minutes he walked away from a campaign he had been running for more than six years previous to that."
While the debates have proved critical, they are one element in larger campaigns that involve extensive ground games in virtually every state across the nation and a television ad war that may consume $1 billion before Election Day.
Through Monday, either absentee or in-person early voting has begun in 43 states.
Romney on Sunday released a new television spot showcasing footage from running mate Paul Ryan's first and only faceoff with Vice President Joe Biden last week. The ad features clips of Ryan saying the government "can't keep spending money we don't have."
The comments are juxtaposed with video from the debate of Biden laughing.
Obama aides said the president was clear-eyed about the need to have a better showing in his second debate with Romney. After a listless first performance, Obama was focused on delivering more pointed and aggressive responses.
Obama took a brief afternoon break to visit volunteers at a campaign office in Williamsburg.
Asked by reporters about his debate preparation, Obama said, "It is going great."
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