Instant Guide

The second presidential debate: A viewer's guide

The presidential debates weren't supposed to matter much. Round 1 between President Obama and Mitt Romney did. It's time to prepare for the rematch

Tuesday night is the second debate between President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. More than 70 million people tuned in "to watch that first presidential debate between a floundering Obama and a resuscitated Romney in Denver," says John Surico at GQ. We haven't seen numbers like that since 1980, and "like any episode post-cliffhanger, everyone wants to find out what happened and what will happen next." Here's a look at how to watch Tuesday's debate, what's at stake, and a little taste of what to expect:

When is the debate, and how can I watch it?The match-up starts at 9 pm (ET) and lasts 90 minutes. It'll be held at Hofstra University on New York's Long Island, and as with the previous debates, will be broadcast live on the major networks — NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and PBS — and cable news channels CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and Univision, among others. The debate will also be live-streamed online at the Commission for Presidential Debates' own collaborative sites: AOL, YouTube, and Yahoo, as well as numerous other sites. See these lists from GQ and GigaOm for online options.

Who's the moderator?Candy Crowley, CNN's chief political correspondent. Both campaigns are voicing concerns about Crowley, says Mark Halperin at TIME, who published a confidential memorandum of understanding, signed by Obama and Romney lawyers, stipulating that Crowley "will not ask follow-up questions... or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the two-minute response period." Crowley has made it clear she's going to ignore those restrictions and ask follow-ups to the audience questions as she sees fit — and thank goodness, says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. "We are all in favor of 'regular' people getting to directly question the candidates," but let's face it, veteran journalists like Crowley are better than laypeople at asking sharper questions that "draw politicians out beyond their comfort zones." Let's put it in a sports context: "Does anyone think the NFL replacement refs were better than the regular refs?" Of course not. "Moderators matter."

Is there a theme to the debate?No. According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, an audience of about 80 undecided voters chosen by Gallup will ask questions "on foreign and domestic issues." Crowley will pick which 11 or so audience members get to ask their questions, and in what order.

What's the format?Obama and Romney will field questions asked by the Gallup-selected undecided voters, with each candidate getting two minutes, then additional follow-up minutes at Crowley's discretion. According to the memorandum of understanding, the voter's mic is shut off as soon as the question is finished, with no chance for him or her to ask a follow-up.

Who's favored to win?Obama, according to a new Pew poll, but by a smaller margin (41 percent to 37 percent) than was predicted before the first debate (51 percent to 29 percent).

What are the stakes?Obama is arguably under more pressure to score a clean win, but "second presidential debates present unique opportunities" for both candidates, says Sean Sullivan at The Washington Post. A solid, empathetic Romney performance could put him over the top in the polls, and Obama really needs the "do-over." Obama and Romney both "have a lot riding on this," political analyst Hank Sheinkopf tells CBS News. "We now look at debates as if they were the elections themselves. If you lose here, you could lose the election." 

Sources: CBS New York, GQ, Pew, Presidential Election News, TIME (2), The Washington Post (2)

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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