It was a tale of two debates in one on Tuesday night.
Early on, when the subjects were the economy and White House energy policy, Republican challenger Mitt Romney was at his best. Forgive those Americans who concluded at that point that Romney is simply the more competent debater. Ultimately he would crisply encapsulate his thinking in one paragraph: "We don't have to settle for what we're going through. We don't have to settle for gasoline at four bucks. We don't have to settle for unemployment at a chronically high level. We don't have to settle for 47 million people on food stamps. We don't have to settle for 50 percent of kids coming out of college not able to get work. We don't have to settle for 23 million people struggling to find a good job. If I become president, I'll get America working again."
That's a compelling argument. When Romney gets away from it, he gets in trouble.
Case in point was when Romney stepped in it by misquoting the president regarding the Libya consulate attack, when in fact Obama did first reference "acts of terror" in a press conference that is still fresh in everybody's memory. Romney was immediately and embarrassingly corrected by the moderator - frequently candidates get away with stretching the truth because the facts aren't on the fingertips of the vast majority of viewers - and it clearly rocked him back on his heels after he had so aggressively gotten in the president's face over it. It was a squandered opportunity, because the White House is vulnerable regarding its evasive mishandling and miscommunication regarding the whole episode, which tragically resulted in the death of four Americans including the ambassador. Romney simply botched the broader foreign policy point to be made.
Meanwhile, Obama pounded Romney on his flip-flops. He was for an assault weapons ban - as governor of Massachusetts - before he was against it. He was pro-choice - as governor of Massachusetts - before he became pro-life again. He was for "Romneycare" - as governor of Massachusetts - before he was against its almost mirror image with "Obamacare." He was opposed to the DREAM Act that would grant a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who are going to school or serving in the military before he supported it - or so it sounded like on Tuesday - while continuing to insist that "self-deportation" is a reasonable solution. He was against coal production - again as governor of Massachusetts - before he embraced it.
If Obama was lethargic in the first encounter, there was an energetic defiance to his performance this time. He emphasized his signature on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Romney's apparent non-support of same in an obvious attempt to court the vote of women, to whom contraception coverage also is an issue (though that's a double-edged sword for Obama as well as Romney). He wasted no time going on the attack against the challenger's economic proposals, saying "Gov. Romney says he's got a five-point plan. ... He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules."
Page 2 of 2 - When Romney made a point of saying "I care about 100 percent of the American people," it just opened the door for Obama to assail the former's 47 percent comments regarding the percentage of Americans who consider themselves "victims" and whose votes he's pretty much written off. If Obama seemed to grow in confidence as the night wore on, Romney just got testy, especially when the president alleged that his tax plan did not add up where deficits are concerned. At one point the president insisted that Romney was more extreme on many issues than former President George W. Bush, whom Republicans have not hesitated to throw under the bus in this campaign.
That's not to suggest Romney didn't have his moments here and there. "The middle class is getting crushed" under the current administration, and "we can't afford four more years like the last four years," he said, with some evidence to support that, or at least to suggest that the tide has not been turned. He's right that on entitlements, Democrats don't have a plan. Where spending and borrowing are concerned, the president hasn't kept his promises of four years ago. Repeatedly Romney said he would crack down on China for its sins against free and fair trade in a way this administration hasn't. "We need moms and dads raising kids" he said, in a nation where many leaders are reluctant to raise that issue.
Ultimately, the civility that characterized the first debate was absent from this one. Republicans who faulted Obama for not being animated enough in the first debate and Vice President Joe Biden for being too animated in his won't have anything complimentary to say about the Democrat now, but the latter found his stride again in this debate. Obama ended stronger than he started, and as such evened this series at one apiece. On to Monday's final.