Romney-Obama Debate No. 2: Inflicting Pain, But Not Feeling It

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar over energy policy during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y.  (National Journal)

The second presidential debate served up a battery of chances for Mitt Romney to prove he understands the problems facing average Americans. But the Republican presidential nominee may remember it more for missed opportunities than for successes.

Luckily for him, President Obama wasn't much better.

The town-hall-style debate, which traditionally has given presidential candidates a chance to show a connection with average people, demonstrated —  if there was any lingering doubt —  that both Romney and Obama lack anything resembling the common touch former President Clinton showed in a 1992 town hall debate.

Both men were more intent on bickering with each other and with moderator Candy Crowley over the debate rules. The combative tone left little room for an exchange like the one 20 years ago, when Clinton engaged in a give and take with a voter and spoke emotionally about all the people he knew who were harmed by the poor economy.

The absence of such a moment on Tuesday night has important implications for both men, but for Romney, it means he lost his best, and possibly last, chance to correct one of the biggest liabilities of candidacy: that the multimillionaire son of a famous governor, who famously described 47 percent of the country as government moochers who will never take responsibility for their lives, can demonstrate empathy for the middle class.

Going into the debate, a Pew Research Center poll showed the former governor trailing Obama by 29 points —  30 percent to 59 percent —  when voters were asked which man "connects well with ordinary Americans."

Romney's inability to reverse that perception was clear about an hour into the debate, when an undecided voter who called himself an Obama backer in 2008 said that he is not as optimistic as he was then and that "most things I need for everyday living are very expensive."

"We can't afford four more years like the last four years," Romney said. "He said by now, we'd have unemployment at 5.4 percent. The difference between where it is and 5.4 percent is 9 million Americans without work. I wasn't the one that said 5.4 percent."

He added: "This is a president that said he could cut in half the deficit. Didn't do that either. In fact, he doubled it. He said middle-income families would have a reduction in their health insurance premiums by $2,500 a year. It's gone up by $2,500 a year; if Obamacare is implemented fully, it will be another $2,500 on top."

Those numbers will resonate with voters (Romney's surge in the polls is a testament to that fact), but the debate was a chance to turn facts and figures into a compelling story. That didn't happen. Romney, and Obama for that matter, seemed far more comfortable discussing policy abstractly, as if lecturing students in a college classroom.

Here was the president, responding to the same question from the former supporter who said he had lost optimism. Obama's response could have been pulled from one of his campaign ads.

After listing a series of promises kept, he said: "Now, does that mean you are not struggling? Absolutely not. A lot of us are. And that's why the plan I put forward for manufacturing and education and reducing our deficit in a sensible way, using the savings from ending wars to rebuild America, putting people back to work. Making sure we are controlling our own energy, and also the energy of the future. All of those things will make a difference."

However, Romney didn't waste every chance. When criticizing Obama's position on coal, he said on the campaign trail voters had grabbed his arm to plead with him to "save my job." He used anecdotes about his term as Massachusetts governor effectively twice: First when he mentioned a program that gave high-achieving students a scholarship, later when he explained how he forced his staff to find and hire more women for his administration (although it might be more memorable for instantly launching the Internet meme "binders full of women.")

Expecting Romney to suddenly demonstrate he can connect with average Americans was always a tall order. But he's been on a roll since his commanding performance in the first presidential debate, in which he defied all expectations. Tuesday night was a return to reality: a tight race against an energized opponent.