6 takeaways from the debate
By: Maggie Haberman
October 17, 2012 01:57 AM EDT
NEW YORK — President Barack Obama stopped the bleeding, Mitt Romney stayed in the game, and the 2012 race remains very competitive after the second presidential debate.
The two men sparred at Long Island’s Hofstra University in front of a crowd of undecided voters who got to ask questions during a spirited and often angry exchange over 90 minutes.
Below, POLITICO’s six takeaways:
1. Offense is the best defense
The president clearly realized this second debate was not a drill (one actually has to seem like he wants the job in order to get reelected).
After taking a bit to find his groove, Obama unleashed attacks against Romney early and often, growing more forceful as the 90 minutes wore on. If anyone doubted that his internal polls showed him slipping and Romney rising, the forcefulness of his offensive should have erased that notion.
Obama tossed out kitchen-sink type opposition research data, including Romney’s personal investments in certain China-based companies. He hit the GOP nominee as an “outsourcer” of jobs and over his personal tax rate. He unloaded the clip, including calling Romney “extreme” and saying his tax plan doesn’t add up.
Obama was clearly making up for lost time (and lost poll support). Romney was also aggressive, but Obama’s performance was more notable for the contrast to the first debate. Romney’s attack lines, while also predictable, were less surprising because he used a number of them last time, and he got tripped up by Obama a few times and seemed too defensive at others.
The problem for a more aggressive Obama is how this style meshes with a candidate whose calling card is personal likability, but the president did what he had to do.
2. One stage, two potential presidents
Democrats are calling the debate a clear win for Obama, and there’s a strong case that the president won on points. Republicans were not making nearly as forceful a case for a Romney triumph in the immediate post-debate spin, and Romney missed some opportunities.
Obama reversed course from Denver and paved the way to grab the momentum back from Romney in the next three weeks — the last of the campaign. In the spin room afterward, his aides looked as though they had all just let out a huge gasp of air.
But for the first 20 minutes of the debate, Obama seemed nervous, and Romney seemed sure-footed.
Obama didn’t smile enough early on, and Romney sounded effective making a case against the president’s economic policies. Obama seemed testy and a bit beaten-down by Romney at the outset.
“(The) first debate, there was one guy on stage who looked like a president. Second debate, two guys on stage look like a president,” said Republican strategist Bruce Haynes of Purple Strategies. “They’ve battled to a draw. I suspect the snap polls will give a small advantage to Obama because he improved so substantially over the last debate.” Haynes gave points to Romney for some of his more tactical answers to specific audiences, especially on coal and on energy.
While Romney didn’t have many breakout moments, he did generally project a presidential image and for the second debate in a row, he offered voters a plausible alternative.
The bottom line: Both candidates gave strong performances, but needed different things and how they are viewed by voters will depend largely on what qualities and issues mean most to those watching at home. This format didn’t particularly favor Romney, but he generally handled questions about the economy and Obama’s vision well.
Obama still remains a vulnerable president, whose campaign and supporters actually magnified the significance of his poor Denver debate by talking about it repeatedly over the past two weeks.
Tonight, neither man offered much of a future vision, but with no clear beat-down on other side, the race is likely to remain close in the final weeks, producing the dogfight to the finish that both sides, for the last few months, have publicly said they expected.
3. Romney flubbed the Libya answer
A viewer asked Romney the question he’s wanted to answer for days, related to the devastating events in Benghazi and the Obama administration’s contradictory answers about them. It was a meatball down the middle of the plate, but Romney swung through.
Obama was able to say that on Sept. 12 at the White House he had referred to the Mideast violence as “acts of terror” — and elide the fact that the administration continued to call the attacks spontaneous reactions to an anti-Islam video for eight days after that.
Republicans have taken issue with the fact that moderator Candy Crowley gave Obama some backup during this moment in the debate by agreeing that the president said those words. But it was Romney who challenged Obama on the veracity of his statement. Post-debate, Crowley said Romney was right overall but picked the wrong example (Obama did use the actual words ‘acts of terror,” though he did not definitively describe the events that day as the work of terrorists.)
Still, Obama turned the moment and used it to make Romney look small and to do the thing he had been criticized for not doing until now — take responsibility for what happened and look presidential.
Obama’s moment is not going to be enough to quell questions about the Libya situation and the administration’s response. Fortunately for Romney, few voters have indicated that Libya will influence their vote strongly, and he can get another chance to tackle it at the foreign policy-focused debate in Boca Raton.
But it was a tough moment for the Republican, and a reminder that this is not an area in which he has generally been nimble. Romney must become so by Monday.
4. Are binders the new Big Bird?
Romney had some strong moments connecting with the town hall-style audience early on: He called questioners by name, he once again told anecdotes he had heard on the campaign trail.
But his answer on equal pay for women was awkward — at best.
The GOP nominee talked about, as Massachusetts governor, wanting more women employees and having “binders” full of women’s names to pick from for possible jobs in his administration.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, in the post-debate spin room, called the remark akin to saying “some of my best friends are women.” The potential for women voters to also see the remark as offensive is quite real.
Before the night was over, a pro-Obama Democratic group had registered a website about “binders” and a Facebook page had been started.
Unlike the Obama camp’s cringe-inducing, two-week effort to use Big Bird as a device to highlight Romney’s call to abolish the public-television subsidy, this tactic has the potential to stick with women, a group with whom the president had seen his support slip in the past two weeks.
To that end, while both men quibbled with moderator Candy Crowley, Romney spent more time interrupting her — a fact that could have rubbed some independent women watching the wrong way.
5. Contrary to their claims, these guys really don’t like each other
There are few times in modern presidential debate history when candidates have been so physically close by choice. During a protracted exchange early on, Obama and Romney closed in on one another, interrupting, raising hands, trying to get words in edgewise.
At times, it seemed perilously close to a fistfight.
Obama’s personal dislike of Romney seemed a bit deeper and more personal; the Republican’s disdain evidenced itself in more policy-oriented barbs. At the same time, Obama clearly realized at a certain point in the debate that he had gotten under Romney’s skin, and it was at that moment that he started enjoying himself.
The president grinned broadly the more flustered Romney got. He joked about the size of Romney’s pension when the Republican said Obama also has investments in places like China. It was similar to how Obama handled Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary debates.
This may be the height of the nastiness, since the next debate is foreign policy only. But then again, maybe not.
Either way, the mudslinging is also potentially unappealing to voters at home.
6. Oh, and did we mention 2016?
It was at one point difficult to keep track of the potential 2016 candidates roaming the post-debate spin room. Over here was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Over there was Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. And nearby was Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
But wait … there’s New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo!
The typically national press-reclusive Democratic governor of the Empire State had not been announced as an Obama debate surrogate, and his appearance in the spin room was a surprise.
Cuomo was asked about the criticisms of how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the de facto 2016 Democratic front-runner who hasn’t yet said whether she will even think about running, has handled Benghazi. He demurred, not mentioning Clinton’s name as he said he felt Obama’s pain on the issue, as someone who, in his gubernatorial capacity, appoints commissioners but takes the responsibility for their actions.
It was all a heady reminder for reporters, and political junkies, of what lies ahead very soon after 2012 — and that 2016 has begun even before this campaign officially ends.