If for a moment Thursday night, President Obama and Mitt Romney could enjoy a brief respite from an otherwise contentious campaign, by today they had put away their jokes and were back to practicing their jabs.
After an evening spent in white ties and tails at the Al Smith dinner gently ribbing each other, the tone of those jokes today turned much more pointed, as the two men readied for their third and final debate in Florida on Monday.
At an event at George Mason University today, the president was still making jokes, but they carried a punch.
"[Romney is] changing up so much and backtracking and side stepping we've got to name this condition he's going through," said the president.
"I think it's called…'Romnesia,'" he added to cheers and laughter. "I'm not a medical doctor, but I do want to go over some of the symptoms with you because I want to make sure nobody else catches it."
After stumping in Virginia today, the president will spend the weekend at Camp David preparing for the debate.
Romney headed to Boca Raton, site of the debate where he will hold a fundraiser and then begin another round of debate prep.
The debates this year have taken on an outsize importance and as the races tightens the stakes for Monday's faceoff could not be higher. Following their first matchup, Mitt Romney received his most significant bump in the polls all year. And following the second debate, Obama had his best day of fundraising ever, including the 2008 campaign.
"This race is close," said Albert May, a professor of political communication at George Washington University. "Anything that moves the polls a point or two is going to be important."
Joking aside, Monday's debate will focus on foreign policy, an area of expertise on which the president has traditionally polled better.
Last week's debate, however, exposed a chink in the president's record, particularly when it came to his understanding and announcing the causes for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
A new report out today suggests that the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington within 24 hours of the attack that there was evidence that terrorists were behind the assault. Romney has scored points on foreign policy by criticizing the president for not quickly and categorically ascribing the attack to terrorists.
"Of course the debate is important," said a Romney campaign staffer unauthorized to speak for attribution. "Given the president's shifting record on Libya, I imagine it will come up in a debate on foreign policy."
"On Monday, the President will discuss how he's kept his promise to the American people to end the war in Iraq in a responsible way, refocus on al-Qaeda, and put forward a plan to end the war in Afghanistan. In contrast, all that Mitt Romney has offered in blunder and bluster. He said he wouldn't move heaven and earth to get bin Laden. He called Russia, rather than al-Qaeda, our number one foe," said an Obama staffer on background.
"And he has failed to outline a plan to end the war in Afghanistan and even said he would have left tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. We need a President who not only keeps us safe in the world, but also understands the need for steady leadership and keeping us out of endless wars. On these points, Mitt Romney has failed," said the Obama staffer. "This debate might not have as much impact as the first debate, largely because they've tested each other," said May. "It also might not just be about foreign policy, and it won't be just about Libya. They'll talk about Libya, China and Russia. Few elections turn on debates, there haven't been many elections that turn on foreign policy."
According to a comprehensive Gallup study, only two debates between 1960 and 2004 moved the meter and quantifiably changed the direction of the polls and the outcome of the election.