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

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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Reuters

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.

Presented by

Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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