The race for the Oval Office shifted today from merely blistering to white-hot angry after a second debate here in Hempstead, New York, that saw President Barack Obama furiously reassert himself as a candidate ready to do whatever it takes to win a second term, presidential poise be damned.
Democrats who despaired after the first debate in Denver – where by his own reckoning the president had been too “polite” – glowed after a performance at Hofstra University east of New York City yesterday that saw him taunt his rival, Mitt Romney, as an unreliable chameleon, shifty on policy and slippery on specifics. Now the two men take the fight back to the campaign trail. Tonight Mr Obama is in Ohio, Mr Romney in Virginia.
Some highlights of last night, notably a charge from Mr Obama that his rival is ducking on how he plans to pay for a $5 trillion tax cut, will set the table for the days ahead. “Governor Romney’s sketchy deal - you’re going to hear a lot about that,” top Obama aide David Plouffe told reporters. Senator John Kerry resumed the offensive today, saying the governor was “petulant” and is “trying to perpetrate a fraud on the American people.
Mr Romney, with a new torrent of advertising dollars, will further press home that Mr Obama has failed to deliver on his promises in his first term and should be retired.
During the feisty 90-minute wrangle that saw arms chopping air, eyes burning and both men talking over one another, Governor Romney, who had been riding improved poll numbers since Denver, did not crumble and concisely dissected the president’s first-term record, notably on the economy. “For me, I look at what’s happened in the last four years and say this has been a disappointment,” Romney said. “We can do better.”
But the narrative today was all Obama. He had escaped doing a Denver Part Deux that might have pitched him inescapably into one-term territory. Nor did he come out with the minimum he needed, a draw. The consensus of the punditry (including for some on the right) and of snap polling was that he had won the debate on points, battering his opponent on topics from taxation to women’s issues, Libya, China, gun control and healthcare.
The ouch moments on the rewind tapes were mostly Mr Romney’s. He created an unnecessary trap for himself on the recent slayings in Libya asserting that the president hadn’t suggested the day after in the Rose Garden that it was an act of terror. He had and the moderator, Candy Crowley, said so. He caused Twitter apoplexy when he spoke of perusing “binders full of women” for jobs in his cabinet when he was Governor of Massachusetts.
That the president will have staunched the bleeding seems likely. He will look for a slight widening again of his now extremely slender lead in places like Ohio and Virginia. But caution is advised; Mr Obama's fighting-rooster reincarnation may not have sat well with wavering voters, especially women.
Not that they will necessarily give Mr Romney points for politeness. The Governor, sometimes peevish, was possibly unwise repeatedly to squabble with Ms Crowley on the rules and essentially to ask the Commander-in-Chief at one point to hold his tongue. “You will get your chance. I am still speaking,” he said, in a clash over energy policy.
There was notably a flicker of snide when Mr Romney pushed back against the charge that his wealth came partly from investments in China by suggesting that Mr Obama look at his own pension portfolio for China items. “You know, I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours,” Mr Obama retorted. Not all voters love zings.
But on the $5 trillion tax-cut plan the president drew blood “If somebody came to you, governor, with a plan that said, ‘Here, I want to spend seven or eight trillion dollars, and we're going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it,’ you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal, and neither should you, the American people,” he said.
Tellingly, Mr Obama seemed perhaps his most persuasive on the Libya killings (though he dodged answering why members of his administration wavered in its aftermath over whether it was a mob or terrorists were responsible). This bodes ill for Mr Romney because the final debate in Florida on Monday will be mostly on national security.
“The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our UN ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” an indignant president lectured. “That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as commander in chief."