After an initial meeting characterized by generalizations, fuzzy math and a passive Obama, tonight’s second of three presidential debates proved more fiery and more far-reaching. Here’s the rundown on what happened and initial thoughts from the polls as to who won and what it means three weeks out from Election Day.
In contrast to the format of the first debate, in which moderator Jim Lehrer directed questioning based around a few central themes, moderator Candy Crowley from CNN’s “State of the Union” fielded questions from audience members, who were all uncommitted New York voters. Despite the official topic for the debate being both domestic and two-thirds foreign policy, the questions were heavily domestic, with domestic energy production, equal pay, illegal immigration and education receiving substantial attention. In the last third of the debate, the candidates finally reached foreign policy issues, speaking about the Chinese economy, the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stephens and weapons flows to foreign countries.
It only took about 45 minutes, however, for the specter of GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s tax math to rear its head. President Barack Obama reiterated points he made in the first debate about how $5 trillion in tax cuts without increasing the deficit is not feasible. Instead of insisting that it was, Romney simply changed the subject to deficit increases that occurred during Obama’s presidency. It was a tactic both candidates would use throughout the night when faced with uncomfortable questions.
Another unfortunate carryover from the first debate was the candidates’ penchant for running overtime. Crowley stated at the beginning of the debate that she was “optimistic” that the debaters would keep their answers concise and on point. While she was a more assertive moderator than Lehrer, both candidates continued to talk over her and interrupt each other. Tangents also plagued the debate, with a discussion about AK-47s in the hands of militants dissolving into a plea by Romney for more two-parent households. The section on immigration ended with discussion of Obama’s pension, which, it was concluded, he does not frequently read because “it’s not as big as yours [Romney’s], so it doesn’t take as long.”
This was not the only jab that Obama made tonight, indicating a more aggressive stance than what he took two weeks ago in Denver. He frequently pointed out contradictions in Romney’s arguments, noting that the governor has flip-flopped on support of coal plants and providing children of illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship. Romney was also quick on the draw; he brought up Obama’s failure to fulfill his promise of filing legislation on immigration within his first year, a charge which Obama did not directly answer.
The town hall format of the debate suited Obama well, getting him out from behind the podium and letting his more natural oratorical style take hold. Whereas he seemed disinterested during the first debate, tonight’s Obama was focused and unrelenting, even to the point of frustrating Crowley. Additionally, his arguments were sharp, and he did not fail (as he did two weeks ago) to point out major gaffes in the Romney campaign, drawing on the infamous 47 percent comment after Romney said that he cared about 100 percent of the American people. Obama’s focus on getting to the root of the problem, especially concerning gun control, served him well, and his unwillingness to back down when Romney challenged him on his handling of the Stephens assassination earned him applause from the crowd.
Romney still came across as confident and comfortable, although facing a competent moderator seemed to throw him off somewhat. But once again, the content of his arguments lacked finesse. In addition to apparent flip-flops between past positions and positions he described tonight, he also contradicted himself within the span of the debate, saying that he would create millions of new jobs early on before saying later that “The government doesn’t create jobs.” More specifics did appear in his explanation of his tax plan, but they were not enough to compensate for the fuzzy math problem.
A flash poll conducted by ABC during the debate and displayed on-screen showed that viewers felt Obama had won by nearly two to one. A similar poll by CNN found that 46 percent of viewers felt the president had done a better job. Flash poll results must be taken with a grain of salt due to the speed with which they are conducted and their relative representativeness, or sometimes lack thereof. Still, the general consensus seems to be that Obama fared at least slightly better.
The second debate is a chance for candidates to show what they have learned from reactions to the first. Here, Obama was able to overturn his distracted, disinterested image, not letting Romney get away with attacking him and thereby exceeding voters’ expectations for his performance. This success — doing better than expected — may be Obama’s strongest achievement of the night and what will start him off with a slight upper hand in the third debate.
Romney, on the other hand, had less upon which to improve given his stronger work last week. Still, staying stagnant while one’s opponent makes changes to his approach is not a winning strategy. Romney still has issues with argumentation and specifics, which he will need to address before moving next week from the economy and domestic issues — topics on which he can beat Obama — to an area in which he is much weaker: foreign policy.
The third and final presidential debate, on the topic of foreign policy, will be held on Monday, Oct. 22 at 9 p.m. ET at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. and will be moderated by CBS’s Bob Schieffer. A campus-wide watch party will be held in the Taylor Lounge at that time. TKS editor-in-chief Anna Meier will also be live-tweeting the debate @anna_strophe.