Obama Wins on Points, but Squabbles Cast a Pall Over the Debate

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If the president's goal was to show life, he succeeded. But the fingerpointing didn't do much to help voters decide between the pair.

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Like two roughnecks squared off on a playground, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney invaded each other's personal space, raised their voices, and fought. "It is just not true," the president said. "It is true," his rival replied. You could almost hear both men thinking: "Same to you and more of it."

If you like to see presidential candidates fight for the job, if you want a passionate dialogue over big issues that matter, you got what you wanted on Tuesday night. If it's civility you seek, you're sunk.

Who won? The answer may be Obama, because his goal following a catastrophically sluggish first debate was so clear: Show some life. And, indeed, the president aggressively criticized Romney, labeling him a hypocrite and a liar who favors the rich at the expense of the middle class and poor.

But Romney got his licks in, too, wrapping a miserable economy around the incumbent's neck. "The middle class is getting crushed by the policies of a president who does not understand what it takes to get the economy working again," Romney said.

Bottom line: Obama and Romney scored points while turning off independent voters with their point-scoring. Democratic and Republican partisans will find reason to celebrate the debate but it likely did nothing to reshape the closely fought race.

The town-hall format posed a challenge for the candidates because it's difficult to launch a political attack while fielding questions from the audience without appearing to ignore the questioner. Obama and Romney didn't seem to care -- indeed, neither of them appeared to connect well with the crowd -- but perhaps that wasn't their point.

"What Governor Romney just said isn't true," Obama said less than five minutes into the debate after Romney challenged his economic record. A few minutes later, Romney accused Obama of cutting the number of permits for drilling on public land.

"We are using oil more efficiently," Obama shot back. "Very little of what Governor Romney just said is true."

Then he turned his body to directly face Romney. "Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, 'This plant kills,' and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you're a big champion of coal."

Romney was having none of it. When Obama advocated an "all-of-the-above strategy" on energy, Romney said that has not been what the president has done over the last four years.

"You cut permits and licenses on federal lands and federal waters in half," Romney said.

"Not true," Obama countered.

"By how much did you cut them?" Romney asked Obama directly.

"We have actually produced more oil ..."

"How much did you cut licenses and permits on federal waters?" Romney pressed.

"Here is what I did ..."

"I had a question. How much did you cut them by?"

And so it went, the leader of the free world and the man who presumes to assume the office squabbling like schoolkids.

The two men debated some important issues, including tax rates, gun rights, and energy.

Romney's strongest moments came when he accused Obama, accurately, of overseeing a troubled economy and falling short of 2008 campaign promises.

Obama reminded voters that he kept promises to cut taxes, make health care more accessible, regulate Wall Street, and refocus the military on al Qaeda.

"Osama bin Laden," he said, "is dead."

He caught Romney trying to reinvent his position on saving the U.S. auto industry. After Romney said he had wanted to guide the industry through a bankruptcy that would leave car companies solvent, Obama corrected the record. "What Governor Romney just said isn't true. He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open, and we would have lost millions of jobs."

He also didn't let Romney get away promising to cut taxes fairly without identifying how he would offset the costs. "We haven't heard from Governor Romney any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood," he said.

Obama closed the debate strong and without a reply from Romney when he chastised the formerMassachusetts governor for saying he was not concerned politically about 47 percent of the public. "Who was he talking about, folks?" He answered his own question: the elderly on Social Security, veterans, soldiers, and students -- all of whom get federal benefits.

At the same time, Obama failed to spell out even an opaque vision of a second-term agenda, a major omission for an incumbent seeking reelection when a majority of voters believes the country is on the wrong track.

Romney sought to take advantage of Obama's vulnerability on the still-evolving story of how the U.S. ambassador in Libya was killed. Obama took responsibility for the event, a day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did so.

But Romney stumbled when he challenged Obama's assertion that the president had labeled the incident a terror attack the day afterward. Moderator Candy Crowley confirmed Obama's account.

Later, Romney aggressiveness got him in trouble when he tried to make a point about his blind trust and said to Obama, "Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?"

Like a kid on the playground, Obama saw the softball and hit it. "I don't look at my pension," he replied. "It's not as big as yours."

Zing! Another point scored. If this is what you wanted, you got it.

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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