Obama rebounds, Romney stumbles

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The style mattered last night more than the substance because, by now, anyone likely to vote has already been exposed to the core positions of both sides. While the 11 questions from the town hall audience set challenging tasks --- “How can I be sure of a job when I graduate from university?” “How would your energy policy bring down gas prices?” “What would you do about illegal immigrants?” “Mr Romney, how are you different from George W. Bush?” --- Obama's  performance was inevitably the centre of attention. Many viewers tuned in to watch that plot line, not necessarily to see whether the president could dismantle the questionable assumptions, for example, behind Mitt Romney's promise to lower tax rates for everyone.

As the curtain fell, the answer to “Can Obama rebound?” was “Yes”,  but his spirited presentation and his attempts to undermine his opponent's were not enough to make him a clear winner in the manner of his challenger a week earlier. Romney struggled to get his message across, but he still provided enough commitment to Republican ideals and talking points to encourage his supporters.

However, beyond that immediate review is far more encouragement for the Obama campaign, as it looks for the polls to shift back towards the President over the next week.

The most significant setback for Romney last night may be the demolition of his political challenge over foreign policy. Over the last week, the Republican campaign has tried to turn the 11 September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya into a defining moment of Obama weakness and negligence on the world stage. In the hours before the debate, Romney's camp appeared to have manoeuvred Secretary of State Hillary Clinton into taking the blame for the deaths of four Americans, thus “covering up” for the president.

Romney sabotaged that effort, however. When the Republican questioned Obama's assurance that he had called the attack in Benghazi an “act of terror” the following day. Moderator Candi Crowley corrected Romney --- confirming President Obama's statement from memory. The Democratic attack ad showing Romney's utter confusion over the clarification must be in production already. An editing team will show how Mitt's consternation caused the biggest laugh, of only two audible on the night, from an audience under orders not to react to the statements made by either man.

So the decision in this campaign, as was probably always the case, returns to the economy and related issues such as health care. Both candidates covered the rhetorical bases: Obama cast himself as the president who was looking out for Americans with the tough decisions to bring the U.S. back to prosperity; Romney returned to “12 million more jobs” while denying that his tax cuts would favour the wealthy and that his health care proposals would lead to higher costs for most Americans.

Importantly, however, Obama was willing this time --- in contrast to Denver last week --- to press his challenger, to the point of interruption, with corrections and queries. So Romney often could not get beyond his initial mantra to set out exactly how jobs would be created, taxes would be slashed, budget deficits would be reduced, and health and education protected for the vast majority of Americans. He turned his frustration at several points into complaints that he was not being given enough time to reply, risking the appearance of petulance.

One incident highlighted Romney's struggle. At the end of a question on immigration, Romney tried to counter an attack, launched several minutes earlier by President Obama, on the former Governor's investment in companies that were “pioneers of outsourcing to China”.

Romney asked, “Mr. President, have you looked at your pension? Have you looked at your pension? Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?”

Obama replied, “You know, I — I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long.”

The crowd had its second laugh of the evening.

In January, Romney had tried a similar tactic, against Republican challenger Newt Gingrich, to neuter the questions about his financial affairs. On that occasion, he succeeded. This time, gleefully expecting the audience to care about Obama's pension, he only shot himself in his political foot. This weakness in his personality --- a refusal to allow even the smallest of criticisms against him to slide --- now accompanies his refusal to release his tax records, and his perceived alliance with the wealthy. He has buttressed the Democratic campaign message that he does not understand the worries of middle-class Americans.

With the final question, a softball about which misperception about himself that each candidate would most like to address, Romney should have regained his footing. Instead, he stumbled and fell further from the heights he reached last week in Colorado.

Romney opened his reply, “I care about 100% of the American people.” If that had been a response to Obama's jab about the Republican's now-famous reference to the “47%” of Americans who will not vote for him, then this approach might have been appropriate. But this was not a response --- Romney had introduced the topic, allowing Obama to close out the debate with a strong presentation of his belief in unity and the personal responsibility shown by all Americans.

Romney supporters will probably argue that, even if the President won this showdown, it's 1-1 after their man's opening victory. But in U.S. elections, ties usually go to the incumbent.

More importantly, as the third and final debate rapidly approaches, the Republican challenger not only lost his advantage from last week; with his clumsiness over Libya, he threw it away in one key area. Republicans have been anxious to tie down Obama about his administration's misinformation about the Benghazi attack, linking that to a wider criticism of his record overseas. They wanted to build this allegation up to and through the last debate, which is solely on foreign policy, but Romney's surprised reaction to the "act of terror" statement has nullified any expectation that he possesses the knowledge, or experience, to embarrass the Commander-in-Chief.

And, with his defensiveness and frustration in the exchanges over the economy, he did not exploit any advantage in what will probably be the defining arena for the vote on November 6th. Romney needed to establish that he could be more than an Executive watching out for his “makers” against the “takers”. He failed to do so, if not with his die-hard backers, then with that “middle ground” who are undecided if they will benefit from a change in the White House.

Can Romney Re-surge? Next Monday, in a foreign policy arena where he has been far from comfortable, the former governor has to deliver a “Yes” to maintain his challenge.

Lucas is professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham and editor of the news site EA WorldView. Haddigan is the news site's chief writer on U.S. politics