CLEVELAND — President Obama needed to sway undecided voters at Tuesday night’s debate. But a perhaps even more urgent task was to reenergize his own supporters, dispirited by his lackluster performance in his first meeting with Mitt Romney.
And judging by the reaction of a handful of Obama supporters who watched the debate at P.J. McIntyre’s, an Irish bar in Kamm’s Corner, a working-class neighborhood just outside this important swing state city, he may have succeeded.
John Hall, 30, a waiter who had been glancing up at the debate on a giant screen hung above a fireplace as he bustled around the bar, began lingering longer and longer.
Afterward, Hall said he believed Obama had clearly gotten the better of Romney.
“He was more specific. And I think it’s true what he said, he’s stopped the bleeding in the economy,” said Hall, who will vote for Obama. “It’s still bad. But he stopped the bleeding.”
Two out-of-state visitors in the bar were watching closely to see if Obama would be more assertive.
“This is where he needs to be aggressive,” Curtis Wilgosh said as Obama opened his very first answer, pivoting from a question about helping college graduates find jobs to his support for the auto bailout.
“He’s being aggressive this time,” responded his viewing partner, Chakra Dabbara, 54, from New Jersey.
“Yeah, this is good,” said Wilgosh, 38, a management consultant from Madison, Wisconsin.
When Obama reminded Romney of a news conference he once gave as Massachusetts governor outside a coal plant, where he said that the plant killed people, Wilgosh laughed. “That’ll be a YouTube video in the morning,” he said.
At a nearby table, sales manager Scott Hanna, 46, watched with childhood friend Steve Williams, 46, who works in information technology. Hanna will vote for Romney. Williams will cast his first vote ever — for Obama. As the debate proceeded, both said they found little new said that might sway anyone’s point of view.
“So, they’ll both cut taxes and give everyone jobs?” Hanna said. “It scares me that so many undecided voters decided based on this.”
“No change for me,” Williams said as the debate ended. “I’m still on my same vote.”
Ohio may be the place where Obama needed a strong debate performance more than anywhere else. As poll numbers slide in the battlegrounds of Florida and Virginia, Ohio is developing into something of a bulwark for the president.
Polls have tightened here too, but most show Obama maintaining a small lead, and it would be difficult for Romney to win the White House without the state, a task no Republican has ever accomplished before.
Just before the debate, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (R), who has campaigned extensively with Romney in the state and helped prepare him for the clashes, said internal polls show Ohio is now a “dead heat.” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina countered the president is still ahead in the state.
As the debate wore on, the bar — which had been packed with a largely non-debate viewing audience at the start — began to clear out.
Wilgosh and Dabbara were two of the last to leave the bar, which caters to a union crowd. Wilgosh said he was comforted. He believed that Romney’s aggressiveness had turned into bullying, which could be a turn-off to some voters.
Wilgosh said he thought Romney’s attitude — particularly as the two sparred over oil production — verged on hostility.”The larger message here is that Romney is being disrespectful,” he said. “You’ve got a president on stage. You’ve got a challenger who, in one instance, is just face-to-face challenging the president. I don’t like that.”
Obama’s performance? “Much better,” Dabbara said. “More energy,” Wilgosh said.
Will it swing elections results? “The popular vote maybe,” Wilgosh said. “I think he’s already got the electoral vote locked up.”