Like last week's vice presidential encounter, Tuesday's second showdown between President Obama and Mitt Romney proved that these debates work better when all participants, including the moderator, show up.
If the first presidential debate featured Romney against an empty chair (as the New Yorker cover had it), this session featured two combatants standing toe to toe.
The debate offered many electrifying encounters and telling dynamics that could reverberate through the campaign's final weeks. Here are five of the most important.
In a dramatic reversal, the president was as aggressive in Tuesday night's debate as he was passive in his listless first encounter with Mitt Romney. The Republican started off strong by jabbing steadily at the president's record, but as the evening progressed, Obama kept his opponent on the defensive on a broad range of issues, from taxes, to immigration, to social issues like federal funding for Planned Parenthood. As the exchanges mounted, Romney at times seemed to cross the line from assertive to intrusive, even telling Obama at one point: "Let me give you some advice." Obama set the tone in a searing first exchange over jobs in which he started by lashing Romney for opposing the auto bailout, and then swerved into a sweeping denunciation of his opponent's record in the private sector. And the president maintained that tone and focus all the way through a closing statement centered on the closed-door comments (that Romney has since renounced) in which the Republican disparaged 47 percent of Americans as overly dependent on government.
In the early stages, Romney seemed to match Obama step for step in spirited exchanges. But, although the result wasn't nearly as lopsided as in the first debate, the balance tilted toward Obama as the discussion shifted to questions that Romney has looked to downplay in the general election, including immigration and social issues affecting women. Romney resurfaced with a strong closing statement that insisted America doesn't have to "settle" for the sort of results the president has produced over his first term — and Obama was again weakest on identifying specific second-term proposals to invigorate the economy. But as the debate concluded, Democrats were probably asking two questions: Where was that President Obama in Denver? And was it too late to reverse the momentum that had shifted to Romney after the first debate?
The first debate largely revolved around a single contrast: Romney seemed to have a plan to revive the economy while Obama did not. This debate saw Obama move forcefully to return the campaign to the frame that had largely defined the race until the Denver encounter — while Romney worked, with less success, to keep the focus on the president. Each man returned to one question relentlessly, as if locking onto a radar signal. For Obama, it was, "Whose side are you on?" For Romney, it was, "Do the past four years justify four more."
From the opening bell, Obama unwaveringly sought to portray Romney as the champion of the few, at the expense of the many. "Governor Romney doesn't have a 5-point plan," Obama insisted. "He has a 1-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules." Obama worked in repeated references to Romney's wealth, including what will probably be the night's single most memorable line when he said he doesn't examine his pension as much as his opponent because "it's not as big as yours."
Romney was equally dogged in tilting every question into a condemnation of Obama's record. Within the first half hour, he had lashed Obama over rising energy prices, the level of energy production on public lands, slow job growth, the swelling federal deficit, income trends, health insurance premiums, and the number of women in poverty. Romney crisply summarized his strongest argument when he said in his closing statement: "We don't have to settle for what we're going through." Overall, Obama made more progress than Romney in advancing his case, but Romney landed powerful blows too. Each man's core argument has demonstrated a powerful appeal for undecided or loosely committed voters — which is why few in either camp would be surprised if the race produces another narrow finish.
Obama benefited because the debate, partly due to his own efforts and partly because of the questions, significantly broadened the range of issues the two men discussed. Over the past year, Obama has systematically pursued a strategy of highlighting (and often provoking) polarizing disputes with Romney and the GOP that energize distinct slices of his coalition, including access to contraception, funding for Planned Parenthood, and abortion (women, especially those with college degrees); temporary legalization for the children of illegal immigrants (Hispanics); and gay marriage and student-loan rates (young people.) But apart from a brief discussion about abortion toward the end of the vice presidential face-off, none of those issues surfaced in the first two debates, which were dominated by fiscal and foreign-policy concerns.
In this debate, Obama was relentless in squeezing those issues into the discussion. With both the Gallup tracking poll and this week's ABC/Washington Post survey showing Obama falling behind Romney among the college-educated white women who have been the most reliably Democratic voters in the white electorate, the president was most diligent in spotlighting the social issues that have helped his party previously cement their support. Three times in the first hour Obama highlighted Romney's call for ending federal funding for Planned Parenthood; he delivered a lengthy attack on Romney's support for Republican efforts to overturn the requirement in Obama's health reform that employers include free access to contraception in insurance plans; and he spotlighted Romney's refusal to enunciate a position on the legislation Obama signed to make it easier for women to sue for equal pay.
The exchanges over contraception seem most likely to echo beyond the debate. In response to Obama's accusations, Romney declared at one point, "I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not." But Romney endorsed Sen. Roy Blunt's legislation that would have allowed any employer (not just religious institutions) to refuse to include free access to contraception in their health insurance plan, as Obama's health reform has mandated.
Stu Stevens, Romney's senior strategist, says these issues won't move women as Obama hopes because the economy eclipses all other concerns for them. But the Obama campaign clearly has different expectations. After the debate, David Plouffe, the president's senior White House political adviser, said, "I thought the exchange over women's health was very important--not only for tonight but for the next 21 days."
Another telling front was immigration. Pointed exchanges over immigration saw Romney returning in tone, at least, to the more conservative messages he employed during the primaries. Obama turned an answer about the differences between Romney and George W. Bush into a denunciation of Romney's call for "self-deportation." Later, in an answer on immigration, Obama wrapped in Romney's support for tough Arizona enforcement law, his opposition to legislation legalizing young illegal immigrants, and another reference to self-deportation. Romney reinforced the contrast with an unmistakable rightward tilt in his answer, as he emphasized his opposition to "amnesty" or benefits that provide "magnets" for illegal immigrants. Romney sought to reach Hispanics by sharply criticizing Obama for failing to deliver the comprehensive immigration reform he promised in 2008; but overall, the evening seemed to signal that Romney is more focused on reinforcing his lead among white conservatives outraged by illegal immigration than denting the president's overwhelming advantage among Hispanic voters.
The Denver debate had a larger impact on the race's trajectory than almost any analyst anticipated beforehand — more than any single debate since at least the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan debate in 1980, if not the first John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon face-off in 1960. That makes predictions about the impact of this encounter even more suspect than usual. Obama probably did as much as he could have on a single night to regain his footing and arrest Romney's momentum. But it's not clear that the president can "re-disqualify" Romney among voters reassured in the first encounter. That doesn't mean Obama can't ultimately win with the tactics he employed on Tuesday, particularly energizing the key elements of his coalition and working to rekindle doubts about Romney's priorities among swing voters. But it does suggest that even after the president's recovery on Tuesday, he is looking at a much narrower path to a second term than appeared available to him in September. In fact, with one debate and three weeks ahead, both men have virtually no margin for error in a race that could once again divide the country almost exactly in half.