Both Obama and Romney had good moments last night, and they just about cancelled each other out

There was no clear victory for either candidate last night. But there are always winners and losers in these debates, says The Washington Post's political reporter

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Neither candidate scored the clear victory Tuesday night that Mitt Romney racked up in the first presidential debate 13 days ago. But this is life. And in life, there are winners and losers:

WINNERS

President Obama: It was a near certainty that he would improve on his mystifyingly bad performance in Denver. And he did. But he did more than that. After coming out a little too hot — Obama was on the wrong side of the passionate/angry divide — the president moderated his tone to the sober yet forceful persona that he needed to project in this debate.

Debates are about moments, and Obama had three: his line about how his pension wasn't as big as Romney's; winning, against all odds, the scrap about the Benghazi attack (with an assist from moderator Candy Crowley); and his strong close in which he used Romney's "47 percent" comments as a cudgel.

Obama's performance wasn't flawless, and he didn't score a clean win as Romney did in the first debate. But he was the better performer this time around.

The questions: Town-hall formats tend to be hit or miss. When regular people get to ask the questions — unedited by that darn mainstream media — you either get blunt queries that force the candidates to think or banal generalities that don't. With a few notable exceptions — gas prices, gun control and why are you so misunderstood — the questions on Libya, whether we are better off than we were four years ago and how Romney differs from George W. Bush were pointed and interesting.

There weren't enough of them, but that was a function of the two candidates talking too much. And although Romney seemed to get the tougher questions, but complaining about the rules is a loser's game. (More on that below.)

Apple: iPad and iPhone both get mentions in the debate! As if Apple needs more free publicity!

Binders: Not since Trapper Keeper's heyday have binders been such a big part of the public dialogue.

LOSERS

Mitt Romney: The Republican nominee absolutely had his moments in this debate. He was excellent when laying out the case for why we are not better off than we were four years ago and why he has a better claim to a track record of success than the president does.

But as noted above, these debates are about moments. Romney thought he had one when it came to what Obama said on the day after the Libya attack. But while trying to catch the incumbent in what he thought was a clear mistake, Romney was hoisted on his own petard at Crowley in what will be the single most memorable (and replayed) interaction of the debate.

Yes, we are aware that there is considerable controversy already over whether what Crowley said regarding Obama's statement was accurate, but remember that the average viewer simply isn't going to read everything written about the subject to get to the bottom of it.

Most viewers are going to watch the debate and think: "Obama looked strong there." Allowing Obama to win — or come close to it — on what should have been his weak spot in the debate was a miss by Romney. And he was clearly jarred about how the Libya fight turned out; he didn't regain his footing for 10 minutes or so afterward.

Bickering about rules: These are the two men who are competing to be the leader of the free world. Do we really need to see them reduced to fighting over who gets to speak last or who is or isn't following the rules of the debate? Both men did it — although Romney did it a bit more — and it looked small and unseemly. Can we please ban this in the future?

Undecideds: Can you say with a straight face that there was anything in that debate — style or substance — that would convince an undecided voter to get off the fence? We can't. The argumentative tone from both candidates is the sort of stuff undecided and independent voters don't like a bit — and affirms for them why politics is broken.

Apple: Yes, the tech company got lots of free publicity, but Crowley noted that its products are made in China! Ouchy.

This article first appeared in The Washington Post

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