Too bad for President Obama that he saved his aggressive performance for his second debate with Mitt Romney. If he had done as well in the first debate, the presidential race might look different today.
But it doesn’t. That Obama was stronger last night doesn’t mitigate the dire effects of the first nationally televised clash with Romney on Oct. 3. It’s the first debate that matters most. It usually has the biggest audience. It sets the stage for the subsequent debates and indeed for the rest of the campaign. And in that debate, the president was a zombie. That’s hard to overcome.
For a decisive comeback, Obama needed a weak performance—and probably a gaffe or two—by Romney. He didn’t get that. Instead, the same passionate and focused Romney who buried Obama in the first debate showed up again.
Yes, Obama had his moments. Whenever he discussed Romney’s wealth, taxes, and alleged favoritism for the rich over the middle class, he scored. But there were too few of those. More often than not, Romney was able to counter Obama’s charges.
And Romney had his moments, too. When an African American man asked why he should vote for the president again, Obama’s positive reasons were trumped by Romney’s list of his failures. In fact, Romney repeatedly pointed to specific shortcomings of Obama’s presidency, just as he did so effectively in the first debate.
One issue is likely to be discussed for days, namely whether Obama called the assault on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a “terrorist attack” in his comments the day after it happened. Romney claimed he hadn’t. Obama said he had.
Moderator Candy Crowley intervened and sided with Obama. But she didn’t get it quite right. Obama, it turned out, spoke about a generic terrorist attack but didn’t specifically attach that label to what had occurred in Benghazi. Nor did he do so for nearly two weeks. Meanwhile, United Nations ambassador Susan Rice insisted a demonstration against an anti-Muslim film had caused the trouble.
But forget the verbal disagreements. Last night’s debate will be remembered for the near-physical confrontation between the candidates. While they were arguing over oil leases on federal land, they walked toward each other, with Romney asking the same question and Obama giving an unresponsive answer.
It was once believed that a presidential candidate who acted in a confrontational way would lose the debate. That notion is now out of the window. Romney and Obama confronted, separated, and neither was the worse for it. True, they were never close to bumping chests. They didn’t exactly advance on each other menacingly. But still their behavior was unprecedented for a presidential debate.
Let’s review where things stand after debate two. The first debate flipped the race. Romney jumped ahead of Obama in some polls, tied him in others, and still trails in a few. Then came the vice presidential debate in which Vice President Joe Biden made a boorish spectacle of himself.
That didn’t change the campaign equation. I suspect last Tuesday night’s debate won’t either.