In Tuesday night’s town hall debate, President Obama clearly raised his energy level. He was well prepared and made every effort to fire up the base of his party.
Challenger Mitt Romney performed well also. It is clear now that the challenger’s strategy is to keep reminding voters that despite the President’s personal popularity, his economic policies have failed to energize the economy and make a serious dent in the nation’s unemployment ranks. At several points on Tuesday night, Romney made this case forcefully.
I agree with Washington Post columnist George Will that it was the most entertaining presidential debate in history. I've seen them all, including the four Nixon-Kennedy face offs from 1960 (all of which are available on line) and this one was high energy and, as these things go, relatively high on substance.
Big moments? There were just a few.
I thought Governor Romney surprisingly fumbled the ball a little when the subject of Benghazi came up, and he seemed to struggle, head down, to find his message. Romney then fell into a classic lawyer’s trap when he challenged Obama, who claimed that he said it was a “terror attack” the day after the event took place. Whenever someone says they used an exact word you have to assume they did. If one reviews the tape of Obama’s remarks that day, it is arguable whether he was referring to a “terror attack” in Benghazi or more generally to the idea that America would not back down to “terror attacks.” Indeed, even the reliably liberal commentator Anderson Cooper on CNN admitted as much after the debate. The good news for Romney is that the next debate – which will focus on foreign policy – will give him a chance to revisit the issue more effectively.
Meanwhile, the President seemed to lose his footing a bit when talking about energy. His answer regarding fossil fuel exploration was confused and some of his points seemed contradictory. And when he tried to argue that gas prices were below $2 per gallon in 2009 because the economy was in the tank you could see members of audience wondering why prices were so high today in the face of sluggish economic growth.
The instant poll numbers taken right after the debate gave President Obama the edge, but not by much. CNN had the President prevailing in the debate 46 to 39 among registered voters. CBS had Obama winning the faceoff 37 to 30 among non committed voters. Thus the question becomes whether the President’s perceived victory will help his poll numbers. According to these same polling organizations, Romney "won" the first debate by 30 plus points and got a 5 to 6 point bounce as a result. If, in fact, the President won the second debate by 7 points his bounce likely will be very small. Maybe a half point or so. The more likely result is a slowing of Romney momentum, which would be good news for Democrats.
The media over the weekend will argue that the debates are tied and that the next one Monday will be the tie breaker. To be sure, both candidates want to perform well in the last debate, which is supposed to be focused on foreign policy. Whoever is perceived as the “winner” in the third debate is likely to gain at least a little momentum in the final days of the campaign.
But in the big swing states – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia – a more relevant factor in the closing days will be campaign spending. As the end of this interminable campaign draws near, the candidates and their surrogates will focus time and money on those areas where the outcome is still up for grabs. Reports indicate that television ads for the major candidates will run almost 24/7 in these battleground states in the days running up to Election Day.