Neither candidate scored the clear victory that Romney racked up in the first presidential debate 13 days ago and both sides will be pleased with how their candidate did in the 90-minute debate. Partisans will love the red meat the two men threw around; undecideds and independents will balk at the bickering. It's hard to imagine the debate changing any minds -- to the extent there are minds to be changed.
But, this is life. And in life, there are winners and there are losers. Our take is below. Who -- or what -- did we miss? The comments section awaits!
* President Obama: It was a near-certainty that the incumbent would improve on his mystifying bad first debate performance. And, he did. But he also did more than that. After coming out a little too hot -- Obama seemed to be on the wrong side of the angry/passionate divide in the first 15 minutes -- he moderated his tone to the sober/serious yet forceful persona that he needed in this debate. Debates are about moments -- the moments that get replayed again and again in the after-action analysis -- and President Obama had three: 1) his line about how his pension wasn't as big as Romney's 2) winning, against all odds, the scrap about the Benghazi attack (with an assist from moderator Candy Crowley) and 3) his strong close in which he used Romney's "47 percent" comments as a cudgel to beat up his rival. Obama's performance wasn't flawless and he didn't score a clean win as Romney did in the first debate. But, he was the better performer this time around.
* The questions: Town hall formats tend to be hit or miss. When regular people get to ask the questions -- unedited by that damn mainstream media! -- you either get blunt queries that force the candidates to think or banal generalities that don't. With a few notable exceptions -- gas prices, gun control and why are you so misunderstood -- the questions on Libya, how we are better off than four years ago and how Romney differed from Bush were pointed and interesting. No, there weren't enough of them but that was a function of the two candidates talking too much. And, yes, Romney seemed to get the tougher questions overall but complaining about the rules is a loser's game. (More on that below.)
* Partisans: From the jump, the two candidates were at each others' throats -- almost literally. Democratic partisans will l-o-v-e the fact that Obama called out Romney on his alleged mistruths. Republicans will l-o-v-e that Romney stood toe to toe to Obama, looked him in the eye and insisted he wasn't getting the job done.
* Apple: iPad and iPhone both get mentions in the debate! Free publicity! (As if they need anymore!)
* Binders: Not since Trapper Keeper's heyday have binders been such a part of the public dialogue.
* Mitt Romney: The Republican nominee absolutely had his moments in this debate. He was excellent when laying out the case for why we aren't better off than we were four years ago and for why his record as a jobs creator was far superior to President Obama's. But, as we noted above, these debates are about moments. And Romney thought he had one when it came to what President Obama said on the day after the Libya attacks. But, in trying to catch the incumbent in what he thought was a clear mistake, Romney was hoisted with his own petard by Crowley in what will be the single most memorable (and replayed) interaction of the debate. Yes, we are aware that there is considerable controversy already over whether what Crowley said regarding Obama's statement was right/accurate but remember that the average viewer simply isn't going to read everything ever written about the subject to get to the bottom of it. (If you, gentle reader, want to get to the bottom of it, you should read this amazing piece by the Post's Fact Checker.) They are going to watch the debate and think: "Obama looked strong there, Romney looked like he didn't have his facts straight." Allowing Obama to win -- or come damn close to it -- on what should have been his weak spot in the debate was a miss by Romney. And, he was clearly jarred by how the Libya fight turned out; he didn't regain his footing for 10 minutes or so afterwards.
* Bickering about rules: These are the two men who are competing to be the leader of the free world. Do we really need to see them reduced to fighting over who gets to speak last or who is/isn't following the rules of the debate? Both men did it -- although Romney did it a bit more -- and it just looked small and unseemly. Can we please just ban this in the future?
* Undecideds: Can you say with a straight face that there was anything in that debate -- style or substance -- that would convince an undecided voter to get off the fence? Us either. The argumentative tone from both candidates is the sort of stuff undecideds and independents voters don't like a bit -- and affirms for them why politics is broken.
* Apple: Yes, they got lots of free publicity but Crowley noted that they make their products in China! Ouchy.