TUESDAY night’s presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may have had the occasional spark, but it lacked fireworks. Rather than a dazzling spectacle, it was noteworthy for two – or perhaps three – lacklustre performances. Having been overwhelmingly trounced by Romney in the first debate, this was the President’s chance to stop the bleeding and redeem himself with his base. By not repeating the debacle of their last meeting in Denver, he has likely succeeded.
Nationally, at least, polls show that Romney has taken as much as a five point lead, with equally strong numbers in crucial swing states. His crowds, volunteers and donations have surged. The pressure was therefore on the President to perform.
But the debate itself, divided between domestic and foreign policy, played more to Obama’s strengths. It was townhall-style, an opportunity for the candidates to take questions and engage undecided voters in the audience one-on-one. For someone with Obama’s obvious presence and oratory strength, it was a more favourable format than Denver.
The main domestic discussions pertained to the country’s troubled economy. The President, much more concerned about promulgating myths about Romney’s tax policy, seemed uninterested in even attempting to make a case for his own tenure in office. The economy also saw Romney at his most lucid, as he rolled off a laundry list of failures. It was what could only be described as a Ronald Reagan-esque “are you better off?” moment. According to a post-debate poll of undecided voters, the President took a slight edge over who won the debate. However, on the matter of the economy, Romney won by some 31 points. Despite all the noise, it’s still the only issue that really matters to this demographic.
The foreign policy section was a testy exchange over Obama’s handling of recent events in Libya. Despite all the outstanding questions, Romney fell short. Obama played it well and opted to filibuster, talking about his admiration for the US diplomatic service. Conservatives were also infuriated by the intervention of moderator Candy Crowley. She interjected during Romney’s floor time to inaccurately say that the President had described the tragedy in Benghazi as “an act of terror.” Republicans have also expressed concern at Crowley’s clock management, as she gave the President considerably more time. There is a lot to be said about this. But given the administration’s continued failure to explain the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Romney had plenty of targets to shoot at.
Because of expectations, Romney likely lost and Obama probably won. However, unlike the debate in Denver, Tuesday night wasn’t a game changer. There is still the foreign policy debate on Monday in Florida. But, with the clock ticking, the convincing is likely to take place on the streets rather than TV screens.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant. Follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt