Obama eases Democrats' worries with sharp performance against Romney

President Obama on Tuesday evening righted a Democratic ship that had been listing since his desultory performance in the first presidential debate on Oct. 3.

Obama was far more assertive, crisp and animated at the second presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y., than during his earlier showing against Republican candidate Mitt Romney in Denver.

Whereas Romney dominated the initial encounter, he was sometimes put on the defensive in the second presidential debate, having to explain the reasons why he had suggested that major U.S. automakers should go bankrupt, for instance, or which parts of Arizona’s controversial immigration law he did and did not agree with.

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In the immediate aftermath, even some prominent conservatives acknowledged that Obama had gotten the better of the contest.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, speaking on Fox News, compared the exchange to the legendary 1970s heavyweight bouts between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and said: “Obama wins on points. ... This was a tough fight. Obama clearly had a good night.”

Obama displayed none of the reticence to go after Romney that had marked his initial debate performance. At the outset, he pushed back against the Republican’s declaration of a “five-point plan” for the economy by insisting “Governor Romney doesn’t have 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.”

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At the conclusion of the debate, Romney noted that he cared about “100 percent of the American people.” The declaration only opened the door for Obama to bring up, for the first time in either debate, the now-infamous remarks in which the Republican had blasted at a closed-door fundraiser “47 percent” of the population as self-identified “victims” who were unwilling to take responsibility for their lives.

Many of Romney’s more effective moments came when he criticized the president’s economic record.

He reiterated his claim that the U.S. cannot afford another four years like the past four years, and landed some more specific blows. Pushing back against one Obama answer, in which the president had highlighted five million new jobs created, Romney argued that the only reason he could say that while those jobs had been added, the president was omitting that the same number of jobs had previously been lost.

But the Republican also exhibited a willingness to quibble with the debate moderator and present himself as a stickler for the rules. The latter tendency was in evidence at times during debates Romney participated in while pursuing the GOP’s presidential nomination earlier this year. Then, it struck even some ideological bedfellows as potentially problematic.

More substantively, an exchange that at one point looked likely to become Romney’s best of the night — about the administration’s conduct in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya — ran aground after he said Obama had waited 14 days before describing the assault as “an act of terror.”

Moderator Candy Crowley broke in to claim that Obama had described the attack in precisely those terms in the White House Rose Garden the next day.

“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama interjected.

The transcript of the president's speech from Sept. 12 shows he used the phrase "act of terror" during his remarks, albeit ambiguously.

The mere fact that Obama took the fight to the GOP standard-bearer, and was so much more assertive in both words and demeanor, is likely to calm incipient Democratic anxiety, which had been threatening to descend into full-blown panic as the polls tightened in the wake of the first debate.

Their sense of reassurance was bolstered by some instant polls in the wake of the debate. A CNN/ORC poll found that 46 percent of debate-watchers thought that Obama won, while 39 percent picked Romney.

A CBS News survey also gave Obama an edge, this time among uncommitted voters: 37 percent believed that Obama won the debate versus 30 percent for Romney.

Yet the same CBS poll also offered an apparently incongruous result, with 65 percent of those same uncommitted voters asserting that Romney had bested Obama on the issue of the economy, whereas only 34 percent favored Obama on those grounds.

Romney’s sharpness in articulating the economic critique might well be enough to save him from any real damage as a consequence of the debate.

Polls in the coming days will be scrutinized for evidence of whether Tuesday’s debate causes the tide to move back in Obama’s favor or simply puts an end to the seepage of support he had experienced since Denver.

The president’s strong showing sets the scene for the final three-week sprint to Election Day — and the final debate, which will take place in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 22 and will focus on foreign policy.

Going into the debate, New York Times blogger and polling expert Nate Silver rated Obama as having a 64 percent chance of winning a second term. The nationwide polling average published by the Real Clear Politics website, meanwhile, suggested a de facto deadlocked race, with Romney leading by less than half of 1 percentage point.

Neither campaign looks likely to lack funds for the final sprint. The Obama campaign raised $181 million during September, and Team Romney $170 million. The days ahead will also see an increasing emphasis on the "ground game" of direct voter contact and get-out-the-vote efforts.

But, for the moment, Team Obama can take succor from the fact that, after all the buffeting winds of the past two weeks, even many objective observers believed their man delivered on Tuesday night.

“After the debacle in Denver, President Obama decisively won tonight’s debate in New York,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. “He was under a tremendous amount of pressure to perform and he did just that.”

This story was updated at 8:33 a.m.