This presidential campaign suddenly has one of those TV tension tracks running in the background — the sort of apprehension-stoking hum that dominates the opening scenes of a Law and Order episode, building to the moment someone points at a corpse and starts shrieking.

Tuesday night's Obama-Romney rematch, it seems, is becoming more crucial by the hour.

The debate has turned into one of those events cherished by Americans — a whole slew of complicated issues magically sorted and clarified in 90 minutes' worth of a made-for-TV personality battle.

Moments like these are a distillation of American society's very DNA, a gladiatorial faceoff — less of a debate than a blood sport — between avatars representing the two poles of this almost perfectly divided country.

It could easily decide who becomes the next president when Americans vote on Nov. 6.

In the hot seat

The man squirming in the superheated crucible is Barack Obama.

Democrats had better hope that all the stories about his icy cool under pressure are true; otherwise America's first black president will likely join George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter in one-term loser heaven.

The collective wisdom is that Obama must be assertive but not condescending, combative but not disrespectful, smart and zingy but not glib, presidential but ready to mix it up, and, um … not black.

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The drama is building for presidential debate number two. (Associated Press)

Because on Tuesday night, Obama will be facing the personification of white American privilege, and even in the new-millennium, supposedly post-racial America, a black man in that position has to watch his tongue as surely as he has to be more deferential to the cop who's standing outside his car window, shining the big flashlight.

Let's put it another way. Imagine what the reaction will be if Obama deploys the tactics his vice-president, Joe Biden, used last week against Romney's vice-presidential nominee, Paul Ryan?

That would be grinning derisively, pointing, laughing out loud, lecturing, and spouting lines like "That's a bunch of malarkey. Not a single thing he said was accurate."

To ask the question is to answer it.

The race card?

This is not to say Mitt Romney is a racist. He is, in fact, so old-school respectful that he apologized during the first debate for using the term "Obamacare," which Obama himself embraces.

But that does not change the reality of a black man facing off with a member of this nation's white aristocracy.

And a case can certainly be made that Republicans are not averse to using the race card.

One needs only to look at the old Obama video from 2007 that conservatives recycled after Romney was caught in September privately disparaging 47 per cent of Americans as non-taxpaying freeloaders (something he has since said he didn't mean to say at all, but which he did very clearly and precisely say).

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In the video, Obama says nice things about his dyspeptic former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who conservatives think is a rotten racist, and he questions whether race was a factor in delaying federal aid from reaching victims of Hurricane Katrina in a timely fashion.

Worse, perhaps, Obama speaks in a blacker argot than he normally uses, something conservatives have pounced on him for doing on several occasions. (Mitt Romney is seldom accused of speaking too white.)

Rush Limbaugh jumped in, pronouncing Obama an angry race-baiter. Tucker Carlson described the video as a revelatory moment, a glimpse at the true Obama, as if four years in the most scrutinized job on Earth weren't revelatory enough.

The Drudge Report, a gadfly website that is plastered with pro-Romney campaign ads, flared it as a headline, despite the fact that the video was five years old and had already been well chewed over in the media.

"The Accent ... The Anger ... The Accusations," the Drudge headline proclaimed.

Had it been more plainly written, it might have said: "Obama talks like a black guy and appears to be angry, and also black."

What issues?

Now, I am not trying to say here that Romney didn't turn in the more energetic performance during the first debate. He did.

There is also no question Obama seemed listless, even mildly annoyed at having to be up on stage putting up with all those attacks. Presidents live in bubbles of deference, and four years of it can turn anyone's head.

And race is just one factor. Tuesday's debate has evolved into the sort of mano-a-mano psychodrama that Americans crave, with Obama the new underdog.

If he can pull this off, he will join Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan in the pantheon of America's most talented politicians. But don't expect Tuesday's show-time to reveal any new facts.

The facts — the fundamental differences between the two parties on the big issues of the day — have been out there for months, verified and re-verified by a host of fact-checking groups that anyone can reference on the internet.

American voters, though, are largely uninterested in such homework.

Few are asking the Obama administration to specify the programs it would cut if re-elected, even though fiscal reality will demand painful spending reductions.

Few are undertaking a serious assessment of Obama's policies in the Muslim world, or how Mitt Romney's solutions would differ.

Few seem interested in how Romney has morphed from somebody who, a few months ago, was promising to cut taxes by 20 per cent for "all Americans, including the (richest) one per cent," to somebody who would not cut taxes for the well-off but who would cut taxes for the middle class, but who would also not reduce government revenue in the process because he would find all sorts of unspecified loopholes and deductions to close.

Which deductions? The mortgage interest deduction that benefits everyone who owes money on a home? The preferential rate for investment income that accounts for Romney's low tax rate?

Or how about a little more specificity about what the Romney-Ryan ticket would do to limit abortion, given the fact that Republican state governments have been chipping away at the Supreme Court's 1973 landmark ruling, and Ryan's debate declaration that the issue should not be left to "unelected judges"?

The fact is, the candidates don't want to give those answers, and they know the electorate gets benumbed when the conversation gets complicated.

So, this Tuesday will see American electoral politics at its best and worst: Two otherwise accomplished, serious men will engage in something like mixed martial arts in a closed cage before a live audience, and the next day one of them will likely be voted off the island.

Corrections

  • Joe Biden was originally quoted as saying, "Not a single thing he said was true." The quote should have read, "Not a single thing he said was accurate."
    Oct 15, 2012 12:00 AM ET