But Will it Shift the Race?
Whoa! Who was that guy Tuesday night? He was like night and day compared to the first debate. Barack Obama brought his “A game” to the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York, and in doing so it’s possible he saved his presidency. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s plenty of time still left.
It’s not that Mitt Romney was all that bad. He wasn’t, except for a couple of unforced errors that could come back to haunt him in the final days. This debate was all about whether the real President Obama would show up and get engaged in the campaign, and unlike the first debate, this time he did. There was a different tone from the outset with Mr. Obama. He was more aggressive and willing to challenge his Republican opponent. There were moments when the two men walked toward each other as if in a gun duel in the Old West, and while neither seemed willing to back down, it was often the president who emerged with a slight edge.
Jousting on the Economy
Most of the debate focused on the economy, the president’s “Achilles Heel,” and a major point of success for Mr. Romney in their first debate. Mr. Romney continued to make his points about jobs, the deficit, government spending and energy, but he didn’t seem quite as crisp as he was in the first debate two weeks ago. Maybe it was the format. Mr. Romney has often had problems relating to voters and questioners in settings like these and he didn’t seem as comfortable as the first time around.
By contrast, the president was much more forceful, both in defending his record and trying to make a case for another four years in office. This has been an area of weakness for the president, with many commentators complaining that he provides little in the way of concrete plans about where he wants to take the country if he wins a second term. Mr. Obama didn’t offer much new in this regard. But it was the way he presented himself, with authority and conviction, that at least gave the impression he does want a second term after all, something even some of his supporters were openly questioning after his first debate debacle.
To be fair to Mr. Romney, the Obama economic record is still his strongest point of attack. His riff on job losses, deficit increases and general economic malaise of the past four years seems to resonate with many undecided voters and this should be a central theme of the Romney campaign moving forward. In fact, every moment his campaign spends on something other than the economy may be a wasted moment with less than three weeks to go until Election Day.
But at times in the second debate, Mr. Romney started to veer back into his corporate CEO mode, which has been a major problem for him in the past. At times he seemed petulant, pressing the president on his pension portfolio in response to an Obama comment about Romney investments in China and elsewhere overseas. The president’s retort that he didn’t look at his portfolio as much as Mr. Romney because Mr. Romney’s was bigger brought chuckles from the normally placid Hofstra audience.
Obama’s Libya Moment
For the past few weeks the Romney campaign has been pounding on the administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The Republican critique has focused on a shifting narrative from the administration about whether the attack was the result of terrorism or a more spontaneous reaction from locals upset about an anti-Muslim video that sparked outrage throughout the Middle East.
Mr. Romney has charged that the administration has been slow to acknowledge that the Benghazi attack was carried out by terrorists, and he again challenged the president about his remarks the day after the attack. That brought the strongest retort of the evening from the president who said he was offended at the suggestion that his foreign policy team would engage in politics when national security issues were at stake. Mr. Romney then pressed on about the president’s remarks the day after the attack in the White House Rose Garden, challenging the president’s assertion that he had mentioned acts of terrorism. At that point debate moderator Candy Crowley of CNN jumped in and said the president had indeed referred to acts of terror in his remarks. The president gleefully urged her to repeat her comment, only “louder.”
To be fair, the president did say the day after the Libya attack that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” The Romney complaint is that this fell short of labeling the Benghazi attack specifically as an act of terror, which the Romney campaign says came many days later. Mr. Obama, though, seized on the moment to look presidential in a way we don’t often see and that is likely to come through in the TV news replays of the debate in the coming days. It’s also questionable how much voters will get into the weeds of this particular controversy even though the administration remains on the defensive about what it knew about the specifics of the attack and who was behind it.
Have Things Changed?
We’ll know more about what this means over the next several days as fresh public opinion polls are rolled out. Most of the experts believe Romney’s decisive victory in the first debate had more impact on the race in his favor than anything that happened in the second debate. But the reverberations over the Libya showdown in the second debate and Mr. Romney’s reference to “binders” full of women candidates for cabinet jobs in Massachusetts when he was governor are likely to be some of the lasting moments of the second debate, and that is probably not to Romney’s advantage.
With his stronger performance in round two, President Obama has probably slowed the momentum toward Mr. Romney in the polls, both nationally and in several of the key battleground states where the election will be won or lost. More importantly, Mr. Obama’s second debate performance is likely to spark some Democrats out of the funk they were in following the first debate. So beginning with Vice President Joe Biden’s strong performance in his debate, and now the president’s stronger showing in his second debate, the Democratic Party base is likely to be reinvigorated a bit, which would clearly be good news for the Obama campaign.
I’m not sure what undecided voters took away from the second debate. Some thought the two candidates got into too much mud-wrestling with each other and offered little in the way of fresh appeals to win over moderate voters. But there are so few undecided voters left that both candidates are going to have to expend enormous energy over the final weeks in getting their own supporters out to vote, especially in key states like Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado.
In the end, the team that brings out its best ground game and get-out-the-vote effort is probably going to win.