Unlike in the first debate, Romney was on the defensive as much as or more than he was on the offensive. It was clear from the opening minutes Tuesday that Democrats, who were deeply disappointed by Obama’s performance in Denver, were elated by the president they saw on stage. He passed up no opportunity to attack his rival and to challenge his record, just as Romney had done last time.
The candidates did not come to play nice. They squabbled over facts. They interrupted each other. They circled each other. They invaded each other’s space. If town-hall-style debates are supposed to be forums in which the candidates focus on the voters onstage, this was one in which they often seemed to ignore their questioners so they could slug it out one on one.
Romney and Obama have one more debate, on Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Although the focus of the final forum is foreign policy, it will be a time for the candidates to make their closing arguments to try to woo undecided voters and motivate their respective bases, whose enthusiasm becomes crucial in a close contest.
But after what happened at Hofstra, it’s clear that the real competition will be the fight to the finish, a battle for the battleground states where the election will be decided. The most important are Virginia, Florida and Ohio — with Ohio being perhaps first among equals. After that come Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Few events have changed the race as quickly or dramatically as the first debate. Romney’s clear victory over Obama in Denver turned around the campaign narrative, which was heading toward a premature conclusion that the contest was virtually over. It also shifted polls, both nationally and in the battleground states.
How many minds will be changed by what happened on Tuesday night? There is likely to be a boost in enthusiasm among Obama loyalists, and that’s not insignificant. Given that some parts of his coalition, young voters in particular, are not as motivated as they were four years ago, that jolt of energy could be important. Obama advisers know that turning out their voters will be harder for them than it will be for Romney’s team.
But Romney’s initial performance did much to generate enthusiasm among his supporters. That’s not likely to be diminished by Tuesday’s debate. After Denver, Republicans began to think it was possible to win. Their enthusiasm going forward is unlikely to slacken. The turnout battle from now until Election Day will be as fiercely fought as was the battle at Hofstra.