Well this is it. On Long Island, New York, at Hofstra University, an echt commuter college with an emblem and a few mockxford-style buildings, they’re setting up for the second presidential debate — and the second one Hofstra has held.

Having hosted the event in ’08, the place has turned itself into politics central. Indeed, it abolished its football team to pay for the event (“they were terrible” said one college grandee, when asked about this sacrilegious move), and the student body has taken up the new branding enthusiastically, turning the day into a huge celebration of mainstream American politics, which is a pretty quintessentially nerdy thing to do. Last time around there was a carnivalesque air, and not too much heaviness, save for around the debate area central. This time, the multitudes have descended, and the place is in lockdown.

In ’08, there were protesters and wizards wandering around the campus, tattoo artists and belly-dancers going pretty much wherever they wanted, amidst the CNN trucks and black-draped raybanned, rectangular SS agents, spirit of Obama, hope and change n all that. But the rule of modern life appears to be that you only ever get one carnivale, something fresh and spontaneous, and not quite knowing of itself. After that, the thing acquires a consciousness of itself, and ceases to be any fun. S-x, drugs, rock-n-roll n politics, the rule is general.

Getting onto Hofstra this afternoon was a nightmare — “the media centre will be open from 5am” the website announced ominously, “and we advise you to arrive early” — and it appeared likely we would be trapped in the torpid wastes of Long Island for days, if we stayed. The carnivale was either over or not yet commenced, and the main activity was a bewildering array of left and Democrat groups signing up students to register, or pledge to, or vote, in whatever their home state was, which was usually a little further down Long Island.

So the world is turning up. But will Barack Obama? In the wake of his first debate performance — worse in the memory than in the event, though not by a great deal — he has been hammered mercilessly by the Left for his failure to turn in a strong and fighting performance, letting Mitt Romney shamelessly reposition himself as a moderate technocrat with a plan to create “12 million jobs!” — 10 million of which are illusory — his plan vetted by “six different studies” — one of them a blog, the other the American Enterprise Institute, so that’s fine then.

Prior to the debate former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm had gently chided Barry on air for not doing his homework, and urged him to “get thee to debate camp”, Obama skiving off and, y’know, running the country. Those words must be echoing in his ears, so booming, really. The first debate was seen by 60 million people, twice the number who saw the acceptance speech from either Convention. For 10 million or more, it was the first conscious engagement with the election so far, and after it was concluded, Obama’s numbers started heading south. They stopped sliding a few days later, but by then the damage was done.

The melancholy news for team Blue is that Mitt Romney is in striking distance of the White House — an amazing anti-feat by the Obama campaign, given that Romney needed either five big swing states and a small one, for victory — or eight states if denied Ohio or Florida. In the wake of Romney’s “47%-gate” embarrassment, all these states showed an Obama lead — save for Indiana, which has already been written off, and North Carolina, which was balanced on a knife edge. Now, the map is starting to turn pink for “leans Republican”. Florida, leaning to Obama by about 1% is now around 3% leaning to Romney, according to poll averages, while the lead in Virginia has changed three times in as many days (Obama now leads by 0.5%). Ohio, where Obama once enjoyed a lead of up to 8% by some polls, is now at 3%. Romney leads in Colorado by a smidgen, and Obama by the same measure in Nevada. North Carolina looks gone, with a near 5% lead by Romney. Nevertheless, should the vote follow the polls — and as they are aggregates, the error margin is lower than any single poll — then Obama will win comfortably (electoral college-wise at any rate), and all this will look like a flap in retrospect, we’ll go round saying “Barry got this” again, and, y’know, NUBO.

However, there’s a shadow over that happy sunlit scene — the numbers went so far south for Obama that new states have been drawn into the swing state category, in particular New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where the Obama leads are 0.5% and 2.3% respectively. New Hampshire is anomalous amongst its New England brethren-states, a libertarian low-taxing outpost, usually persuaded into the Democrat camp by residual social liberalism — but antsy enough to depart now and then. Wisconsin is Paul Ryan’s home state, its movement rightward an answer to all those who found the choice of Ryan incomprehensible — Americans are sufficiently savvy about their federal system to know that having an advocate in high places is good for a state, and switch votes accordingly. Either that or they’re sufficiently sappy to vote for a local boy, even if he ran on an anti-fluoridation, restore the monarchy platform, or perhaps especially so, the madder the better.

Thus the widening of the field offer Romney another path to victory — though it remains tough without Ohio. He would need — aside from Indiana and North Carolina — Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, New Hampshire, and one of Iowa or Nevada. More abstrusely, he could take the single college votes gained by winning a congressional district won by Obama in Nebraska or Maine in 2008, add those to Iowa or Nevada, without New Hampshire, and squeak through. There are also various combinations which result in a draw 269-269, at which point the President is decided by the House of Representatives, after weeks and months of lawsuits and recounts and a legitimacy crisis for the Republic.

So Obama’s task in the second debate is easily defined — he has to stop the bleeding, and reverse the process. Victory now turns on holding one of either Virginia and Ohio, and at least three of the small states. Defeat would be hastened by another bad debate performance, another chance for Romney to present himself as Mr Fix-It, and the take up of that message in the next tranche of states — Michigan and Pennsylvania, currently running at about 4% and 5% for Obama. Should those leads be knocked down to 1 or 2%, then Romney has many paths to victory, and the Democrats face a difficult defence game.

They are already suffering from the impact of the “Citizens United” decision, which John McCain rightly described as the worst decision in modern supreme court history. Right-wing super PACs are outspending left ones 3:1, and the flooding is becoming intense. Nevada alone, with six of 538 electoral college votes, has seen 75,000 TV ads aired to date — and the total will double or more by November 6. If nothing else, this election will test the efficacy of political saturation — does it work, or is there a natural limit to its effect.

We will find out. As tonight we will find out whether my beloved NUBO principle survives. The debate is a town hall-style meeting with real questions from real rubes … er, citizens. Obama has to be simultaneously presidential, indulgent, aggressive and humble. It’s a tall order for any but a natural, a Clinton or a Hawke. On the other hand, Mitt Romney will have to interact with real people, and he hates them, they make him nervous. It is Obama’s last chance to tell a story about the economy, to make sense of a slow recovery and paint Romney’s plan as candy-floss.

Forget the debate as a whole — this election may turn on ten minutes within it. The drinking game of choice will either be celebration, or oblivion. Will the carnivale be over? Is that all there is to a circus?

*Guy Rundle will deliver his debate verdict on the Crikey website this afternoon