There is no doubt that the most consequential debate of the entire election is this one tonight, because this is the last debate that addresses Romney’s comfort zone of domestic policy. Despite my thoughts, the first debate between Obama and Romney was seen as a victory for Romney. He has improved his polling greatly since then. The country expected the first debate to be like what Biden pulled on Thursday night; merciless. Instead, Obama was timid, as if testing the water. He stuck to his record and missed a lot of really easy swipes at Romney’s record. But he wasn’t knocked out. The high expectations of Obama and the ground level expectations for Mr. Romney gave the impression that Romney did a lot better than he should have been given credit for.

Before the debate:

Romney: Romney knows that Obama will be aiming to redeem himself from the last debate. His aim here is to be prepared for the inevitable hard hits that Biden rehearsed on Ryan the other night. If he deflects the Mr. Burns complexion and avoids coming off as a condescending robot, he could be fine. But I feel that after he walked back on so many of his policies last week, the Obama team has prepared Obama to drill into those inconsistencies. Much like the vice presidential debate, I expect Romney to very much be on the defensive. And the more pressure put on Romney, the more likely he will fumble or say something out of step. He needs to have a decisive performance to start turning the polls more quickly in his direction with only 21 days in the campaign to go.

What Obama needs to do: Obama should at the very moment be studying everything about his vice president’s performance on Thursday. He has to hit Romney on anything and everything about his record and platform on the campaign trail at every possible moment. He cannot afford to look timid or tired like last time. He has to be the aggressive person he was in 2008. I have made a small checklist of the things Obama could bring up to hit the debate home. If you hear these things mentioned, it’s likely Obama is pinning Romney to the wall. If not, then Obama didn’t learn much from the first debate.

  • “Let Detroit go bankrupt”
  • 47% comments
  • Romney budget not mathematically possible

This debate format favors Obama. It’s a town hall-style debate where the candidates can get personal, and Romney is at a disadvantage for that.  Obama will be aggressive, and I have no doubt that after feeling defeated over last time, his performance will be considerably more like his 2008 self.

The Debate:

Romney: This format overall seemed to be a hinder on Romney. He came off as appropriately aggressive in the first debate because the moderator wasn’t forceful and the format was more allowing of it. But here, when Romney wanted to come in and defend himself from Obama’s very aggressive attacks, he was competing with the moderator who wasn’t backing down, which came off as a sign of desperation, or even rude to the moderator. He was corrected by the moderator on his accusation of Obama’s semantics of the attack in Libya, and he began to lose composure around that moment. He resorted to campaign talking points a lot when he wanted to avoid answering questions in greater detail, and made the mistake of acknowledging his 47% comments in the final moments. His biggest little gaffe was the “binder full of women” comment, which made twitter and Facebook explode in laughter. There were a number of statements he made that were quite questionable on their factual correctness, like how high income people have a 60% tax burden; but I suppose the Romney campaign did say they won’t be dictated by the “fact checkers”. This was a performance that he needed to control to continue his winning streak, and he lost that and then some.

Obama: This is the Obama from 2008. This is the campaigning mastermind that won against the odds. Obama came out swinging hard.  He was forceful, calling inaccuracies out swiftly and respectfully. He often successfully coaxed Romney into hastily trying to respond out of turn. Obama can’t be as blunt striking as Biden the bulldog. He has to seem more presidential, more composed, and he was the entire time. His points were incredibly effective and concise. There were hilarious moments, like when Obama answered Romney’s badgering about his pension by saying “I don’t look at my pension, it’s not as big as yours”, or bringing up the big bird comments as a Romney strategy of reducing the deficit. Obama commanded the debate, often injecting other issues not being asked like women’s reproductive health or education policy where he thought he had ground. He also made a good statement about the differences between Romney and Bush, painting difference as Romney as the one pursuing more extreme policies. Let’s look at my checklist.

  • “Let Detroit go bankrupt” (Check)- Critical to Ohio voters, where Obama’s polling is strong
  • 47% comments (Check) -This was actually brought up in the last question because Romney said he cared about 100% of Americans, and Obama took advantage of that and slammed him in the closing statement
  • Romney budget not mathematically possible (Check) -The moderator tried to press for more specifics again, Obama brought this up a lot.

One thing Obama did not do well enough was address Romney’s critique of the deficit, which he could have addressed more as another legacy of the Bush administration. But Obama did everything else he needed to in this debate, delivering another great performance for his campaign so soon after Biden’s great debate.

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Candy Crowley: She did a brilliant job moderating the debate, keeping the candidates in check and making it her obligation to keep them honest or more precise. She allowed time on subjects where it was needed but made sure to keep the debate moving to a variety of topics to assure the candidates couldn’t freelance.

The most memorable moments of the debate centered on Libya. After Obama made a very testy and aggressive attack on Romney for politicizing the assassination of Ambassador Stevens, Romney tried to shift debate to the semantics of calling it a terrorist attack, accusing Obama of not using that language right away when in fact he had. In a devastating moment, Romney was corrected by the moderator, and Obama exacerbated it by asking her to repeat it louder. That will be the most memorable exchange that caught Romney really off-balance, because he was making a lame deflection that was based on a lie so obvious that it could be instant fact checked. The exchange perfectly sets up the final debate next week, which is focused all on foreign policy. It will be a disastrous debate for Romney, as most of his advisers are from the bush administration, and Romney has demonstrated a huge ignorance on basic international issues throughout the campaign. His campaign staff has also called foreign policy a “distraction”, as evident by its lack of mention at the RNC convention.

This was a clear victory for Obama, something he needed to get rid of the images of himself in the first debate. I’ve seen caution to say that this will provide an immediate boost in the polls for him, but I would expect to see at least a little bump, and more importantly a reversal in poll gains for Romney, which was the main goal tonight for the Obama campaign. They already have a considerable advantage and needed this to continue solidifying it and denying Romney’s gains in the battleground states.

Verdict: Clear Obama Victory