In the days after Mitt Romney ran over a seemingly passive, even docile President Barack Obama in the first debate between the two candidates not to mention moderator Jim Lehrer the GOP candidate seemed to bask in the after-glow and poll gains of his victory. Publicly, on the stump, and in his ads, he allowed that he enjoyed himself in the first debate.
In the second debate Wednesday, Romney was still enjoying himself at the outset brisk walk, big smile, happy to hear from the young man worried about finding a job after college, chatting him up per his plan to look more accessible, down-to-earth and personable.
But here’s a fair bet: I’d bet that Romney won’t be talking about this town-hall format debate moderated by CNN correspondent Candy Crowley in terms of how much he enjoyed it any time between now and the next debate of the century, which comes smartly on Monday. It might be that Romney expected the meek and mild version of Barack Obama to show up again. He didn’t. Obama came ready to spar and fight, a little too much so early on, then later, much more in a more measured, self-assured, but still combative way.
Romney once again tried to ramrod his way into taking up more than his share of time by not answering questions and repeating his oft-told tale of the failures of the Obama presidency and touting his five-point jobs plan. Somehow, that didn’t work so well, as could be seen from his early big, and smug smile, turning into a slight smirk, and then, in the end disappearing altogether, his face becoming tense and drawn. He remained, it should be said, aggressive throughout and challenged the president often, especially on his claims on energy issues.
The difference was that the president was no longer staring at his shoes with every Romney assertion. He fought back from the get-go. This debate while getting into new territory and new issues not covered in the previous two debates was not especially substantive, but was special because it revealed the differences between the two candidates as stark in terms of issues as in temperament and personality.
Obama was no Biden, neither Romney nor Clinton, but he stood strong and made it clear that he was passionately fighting for re-election and that this was a battle between two different philosophies of governance. More than that, in this debate, Obama had size, he had passion and he had the gravitas a president should have.
While his supporters claimed that he looked “presidential,” Romney at times had the face of a bully denied a walk in the park. He sounded and looked tense, frustrated and peevish, going so far as to argue with Crowley at one point. He stopped trying to engage the questioners, an interesting lot of 50 individuals who were supposed to be as yet undecided.
One of them brought up the potentially hazardous for the president issue of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. Romney blasted Obama for going to Las Vegas for a fund-raiser the day after the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Obama blasted Romney for making critical statements before the facts were known then took umbrage at the idea that his administration had politicized the events. Obama said that he had on the following day called it “an act of terror.” Romney jumped and all but called him a liar, while Obama repeatedly said, “Check the transcript.” Crowley then corrected Romney and said that the president had indeed used the phrase, “an act of terror,” but that the administration had not responded for two weeks in that manner.
The exchanges left Romney frustrated and not a little embarrassed. Because the exchanges on this point were somewhat pivotal, they’re still being argued about in the media and by Romney reps who said Crowley was essentially biased in what she did.
Not so biased were the new forces in the land on the Internet, the Facebook commentators, the twitterers and texters who latched on to such less earthshaking matters as “binders full of women,” a phrase used by Romney to explain how he had tried to make sure there were more women in his cabinet when he was the Governor of Massachusetts. It was while answering a question on equal pay for women in the workforce that Romney brought up his use of flex time to help female workers, a subject he had never broached through the entire campaign.
Romney repeated his five-point plan to create 12 million jobs ad infinitum. Obama shot back with “He doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan.” What also seemed obvious was Romney’s charting his way toward the moderate middle as best as he could, saying that he would not cut taxes on the wealthy (although continuing or making permanent the Bush tax cuts would do exactly that) and that he wanted to create a path to citizenship for some of the illegal immigrants, although he could not back out of the haunting phrase “self deportation,” which he tried to paint as something benign and innocuous.
What was apparent was that these two men did not like each other even a little. This debate often resembled a bullfight between two bulls they pointed at each, they argued loudly, they tried to steal time, they got into each other’s space, if not face, stopping only at stomping their feet on the floor. For Romney, the aggressive pushing for time was nothing new. For Obama, it was a turnabout he seemed to come out of a deep coma-like sleep and he came out energized which was exactly what he needed to do. He may have stopped the bleeding in the polls, and he may even have started some on the other side. Conservative pundit Gary Wills called it a strategic win for Obama and declared the debate the best presidential debate ever.
Asked as a closer in what way they were misrepresented or misunderstood, Romney brought up the point that he’s been painted as not caring for regular folks, for the common man, the working families. “I care passionately about 100 percent of the American people,” he asserted.
Obama said he was seen as a man who thinks that government can solve all the problems and said the he was not. And then, after Romney’s “100 percent claim,” Obama played the card he’d had all night. He brought the number down to the “47 percent,” which Romney had so easily dismissed in a speech made early in the campaign before a closed-door audience of supporters.
Catch your breath, folks, pollsters and spinners. The third debate comes up Monday, Oct. 22, a debate which many commentators had not considered to be an urgent matter, but has now suddenly became very urgent. It is here we go again the debate that could decide the election. It will concern itself with foreign affairs, which is to say you can expect to hear Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi. It will no doubt be great television, and it appears now that this election was really about four debates. All the money spent by both sides on disheartening negative ads, Romney’s primary campaign and the two conventions were essentially meaningless exercises—on the road to four of the highest-rated reality shows ever staged. I guess the first three were the playoffs, and Monday is the Super Bowl. But will the fat lady sing?