THE RACE: Hofstra debate critical to both sides

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

(AP) -- The presidential contest is razor close.

From now on, even little things can have big consequences - making Tuesday night's debate at Hofstra University exceptionally crucial.

President Barack Obama's passivity and Republican Mitt Romney's aggressive self-assurance in their Denver debate debut prompted both camps to award the advantage to Romney.

Obama is now looking for a rebound. He's under pressure to spell out exactly what he'd do in a second term.

Romney must guard against overconfidence and present himself as a taskmaster able to reach across party lines.

He'll likely be pressed to explain more clearly how his across-the-board tax cuts wouldn't raise taxes on middle-class voters or lower them on the wealthy.

Foreign policy, including the terror attack on a U.S. mission in Libya that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, seems sure to come up.

Body language counts for a lot.

In a town-hall format such as Tuesday's in suburban Hempstead on New York's Long Island, the candidates face questions from undecided voters - requiring both to connect with everyday Americans.

In the past, Obama generally has done well in such settings.

Exactly three weeks out, neither candidate is near to closing the deal.

Recent national polls all point to a tight race, with the differences falling within each poll's margin of sampling error. Still, multiple polls have found increased enthusiasm among Romney backers.

Both teams waged heavy pre-debate spin Tuesday.

Obama will emphasize that "the path that we've been on is much better than where we've been," said Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod.

Republican party Chairman Reince Priebus said Romney's momentum is helping to fuel a high-energy GOP get-out-the-vote drive in battleground states: "We're blowing the doors off where we were in 2008."