HEMPSTEAD, United States – US President Barack Obama outperformed his Republican challenger Mitt Romney Tuesday evening at their second debate, pulling almost even their support in the last stretch of this election cycle.
But he was met with an evenly invigorated Romney, whose commanding performance last time shifted the election’s momentum to his side.
The more lively performances from both candidates all but ensured that the debate was full of confrontations and sparks, as candidates trade barbs when answering questions from undecided voters.
Such questions covered topics ranging from economy and jobs to foreign policy and women’s rights.
Although commentators warned beforehand that failing to preserve grace and humor could be fatal, as style is considered at least as important as substance in a town-hall style debate, both candidates frequently flouted debate rules, and at times, physically circled and pressed each other on issues.
Mark Salter, former chief of staff for Republican Sen. John McCain and senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign, opined in a recent piece that “gaffes in presidential town-hall debates, even an unthinking glance at your watch, can be fatal with just a few weeks left in the campaign.”
Romney made a visible gaffe during a confrontation with Obama. He insisted Obama didn’t call the attack on US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens an act of terror the second day, which he did. Moderator Candy Crowley pointed that out on the spot, blunting Romney’s attack.
It was not immediately clear how much damage the gaffe could inflict on the Romney campaign, but Republicans have already begun crying foul, arguing it was not appropriate for Crowley to step in like that.
Besides that blunder, Romney also appeared, at times, rude and arrogant towards the president, interrupting him and at one time prevented Obama from interjecting, saying “you’ll get your chance in a moment,” drawing gasps from the audience.
Besides the heated exchanges, both Obama and Romney seemed genuinely engaged with the audience, and made visible efforts to connect with them during the debate, looking voters in the eyes when answering their questions, and leaning in when listening.
According to an instant poll by CNN and ORC International, 46 percent of debate watchers said Obama won the debate, while 39 percent said Romney did.
As is custom after each debate, both campaigns rushed to the media center afterwards to declare themselves the winner.
Sen. John Kerry, who helped Obama prepare for the debate, said the president “has done a terrific job,” and the night marked the start of the “unraveling” of Romney’s campaign.
Ed Giellespie, a senior adviser to Romney, said “the president can change the plan, change the tactics, but he can’t change four years of failed economic policy.”
The Obama campaign is trying to stop Romney’s surge, but how much headway the president has made in the direction with his commanding performance Tuesday night remains unclear.
A multitude of polls have shown Romney has momentum behind his back. A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed that Romney is leading Obama 50 percent to 46 percent in 12 crucial swing states, as Obama’s previous lead among women voters has sharply declined to a virtual tie of 49 percent to 48 percent.