Who Won the Debate Tonight: Obama Excels, Romney is Testy


Editor's Note: This represents instant analysis of the presidential debate on Wednesday night. For the author's thoughts in the hour immediately before the debate began, see here.

Here are my first impressions about the second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Tuesday evening:

1) The Big Points:

- Obama's performance was much, much stronger this time around. He made excellent eye contact, assertively confronted Romney without coming across as rude or bellicose (charges made against Biden last week), and spoke in clear, confident sentences. Even better, he got in a few great applause lines, from his quip about the size of Romney's pension to his mildly exultant request that Crowley repeat her confirmation about the factual inaccuracy of one of Romney's charges (on the Libya attack). The worst case scenario tonight would have been him losing again, and no one outside of the most rabidly partisan right-wingers can argue that that happened.

- It seemed like Romney was trying to emulate Biden's rambunctiousness (emphasis on the word "seemed," since I doubt this was by design), but he made two critical mistakes: (1) He lacked the conciseness he had mastered during the first debate, instead allowing himself to ramble and lose sight of the central points he was trying to make. (2) While Americans are used to the candidates interrupting and being aggressive toward each other, they are unaccustomed to having them be similarly dismissive toward the debate moderators (politely asking for more time is one thing, but seeming to insist on it is quite another). Romney's attitude toward Candy Crowley probably won't hurt him to the same extent that Obama's disinterested demeanor did on October 3rd (since it wasn't as persistent throughout the course of the debate), but I suspect it began to subtly grate and, as such, will shave a few points off of those who decide if he "won." He came across as testy, not feisty.

2) Some Smaller Points:

- Mitt Romney admitting that he wanted Detroit to go bankrupt could be the equivalent of Walter Mondale declaring that he would raise taxes. He provided Obama with a potential sound byte that the president will be foolish not to use in future commercials, especially in heavily industrial swing states like Ohio and Michigan.

- While the candidates' language was much more accessible than it had been during the uber-wonky first debate, neither made points that are likely to transcend ideological bounds and have a lasting resonance with swing voters. It's tempting for both sides to wildly applaud when their champion recites their favorite talking points, but those statements generally only sound like so much election year static to the undecideds.

- Crowley struck a middle ground between Raddatz's firm grip over the course of the vice presidential debate and Lehrer's doddering ineptitude during the first presidential outing. This should not have run overtime, but at least she was able to keep things focused.

3) The Bottom Line:

- As I predicted in my earlier editorial, this debate will be deemed either a "draw" or a lesser pro-Obama "victory" (i.e., a "lesser victory" here being one that was not as decisive as that which benefited Romney after the first debate). For all of Romney's mistakes, they didn't leave the kind of intensely negative visceral impression as did Gerald Ford's "Eastern Europe" gaffe in 1976, George H. W. Bush's watch-checking in 1992, and Obama's deferential attitude two weeks ago. Likewise, for all of the president's improvement, he failed to land a knockout punch against Romney akin to Ronald Reagan in 1980 or Lloyd Bentsen in 1988... with the exception of his reiteration of Crowley's proof that Romney's attempt to score a "gotcha" moment against Obama had failed. That one might leave a serious political bruise against Romney.

- The ultimate impact of this debate will depend on whether media coverage and post-debate polls deem it a statistical tie, a slight Obama victory, or a triumph for the president. The good news for Obama is that even the first possibility will probably help him by a point or two, given the contrast with his performance from the last debate. The last two alternatives will likely make it more of a three-to-four point bounce, which will give him a sound (but, for Romney, hardly insurmountable) lead. In short, Obama almost certainly gained more from tonight's event than Romney; the only question is by how much.