HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - Call it fight night.
low-key, low-energy President Obama whose performance was widely panned
after the first presidential debate two weeks ago apparently stayed back
in Denver. With his ambitions for a second term on the line, the
president talked faster, pushed back harder and challenged Mitt Romney
with more specifics in a crackling second encounter on Long Island on
The Republican nominee often was put on the defensive,
forced to explain promises he made during the Republican primaries on
immigration and taxes. He seemed taken aback when Obama blasted him for
what the president characterized as an effort to score political points
from violence in the Arab world that cost a U.S. ambassador's life. And
in one of several confrontations that put the two men virtually
toe-to-toe, Romney demanded to know whether Obama realized he had
investments in China in his pension.
"Mr. President, have you
looked at your pension?" Romney asked. "Have you looked at your pension?
Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?"
"You know, I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours, so it doesn't take as long," Obama finally said to laughter.
struck a regretful tone when he expressed disappointment in the
president's economic tenure, a sentiment mentioned even by a voter who
posed a question in the debate. "If you elect President Obama, you know
what you're going to get," Romney said. "You'll get a repeat of the last
four years." He called Obama "great as a speaker" but, in effect, a
failure as a president in delivering prosperity for the middle class.
few moments on TV more than likely will determine who is elected
president in 21 days. The question will be which moments: the most
memorable exchanges from the three 90-minute debates between Obama and
Romney? Or the impact from a flood of 30-second ads both sides are
Strategists in both campaigns viewed the second debate as a
pivotal event in a contest that is once again strikingly close. After a
year-long campaign, the town-hall-style forum at Hofstra University was
probably the best remaining opportunity for Romney to build on the
positive impression he made in the first debate and for Obama to regain
the momentum he lost there.
Obama came across as more engaged and
presidential than he did in Denver, and he hit themes he failed to
spotlight in the first debate. In response to the first question, he
managed to mention Romney's opposition to the auto bailout. In the last,
he noted Romney's controversial "47%" comment. And in remarks that
seemed tailor-made to please female voters, he noted his debt to his
single mother and his grandmother and his aspirations for his two
The confrontation between the two men at times seemed
almost physical as they circled the stage, addressed one another
directly, all but accused his opponent of lying and complained to
moderator Candy Crowley of CNN that fairness meant he deserved more time
to speak. There were flashes of heat.
Given the buildup
beforehand for the high-stakes encounter, the debate presumably drew a
huge audience. The first was watched by 67 million people, Nielsen
reported, the most for any presidential debate since 1992.
in the battleground states, the debates are framed by an unprecedented
onslaught of political advertising, almost all of it negative. On local
stations from Orlando to Columbus, Richmond to Las Vegas, airtime from
now until election eve is sold out and campaign ads are running
It is easier to skip the debates than avoid the
spots. In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of Swing States, nearly eight of 10
residents in a dozen top battlegrounds say they have seen an ad for
Obama or Romney in the past three days. (So did 63% of those in
For most, it wasn't a positive experience. A
55% majority in the battlegrounds say this year's presidential ads have
"turned them off to the campaign." Just a third say they have made them
"feel more excited" about it.
"It's just mud-slinging," Mary
Edwards, 46, of Wilson, N.C., who was called in the poll, said in a
follow-up phone interview. "They're just talking trash about each other.
They're not putting out what they're going to do, what they can do."
said, voters in the battlegrounds acknowledge that the ads are
influential. Six in 10 say the campaign ads they've seen have made them
more certain about whom they'll support. Fewer than one in five say the
ads made them less certain.
The poll of 1,023 registered voters
was taken Oct. 5-11 in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New
Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and
Wisconsin. The margin of error is +/-4 percentage points.
campaign more than previous ones, the ads and the debates seem to be
filling divergent roles. Almost all of the TV ads have been negative -
that is, devoted to blasting the other candidate. A study by the
Wesleyan Media Project released earlier this month reported that fewer
than 8% of the presidential ads in the previous three weeks had been
positive, mentioning only the candidate it backed. That's much lower
than in 2000, when 30% of the ads were positive, or in 2008, when 19%
In some ways, the debates are designed to be an antidote to
ads. On a small stage, surrounded on three sides by an audience of about
80 undecided or "persuadable" voters, they tried to make the case for
themselves. Obama touted his record as president; Romney bragged about
his record as Massachusetts governor and head of the Salt Lake City
But they also turned nearly every question to an attack
on the other. In an emotional exchange, Romney accused Obama of behaving
inappropriately by leaving Washington to headline political fundraisers
on the day after the U.S. ambassador was assassinated in Libya, and of
trying to mislead Americans about the terrorist nature of that attack.
turned the charge back to Romney: "The suggestion that anybody on my
team, the secretary of State, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team,
would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own is
Their exchanges weren't exactly spontaneous -
each candidate spent days at "debate camps" beforehand rehearsing quips
and practicing answers - but they are less scripted than almost
anything else the candidates do during a campaign. "An unfiltered
moment," Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus said beforehand.
in the end, says Mitchell McKinney of the University of Missouri, "the
power of the 30-second spot may well trump the effect of debates."
one thing, he says, voters are more likely to recall ads, especially
negative ones, than they are moments from a debate beyond some gaffe or
exchange that becomes the subject of constant replay. For another, ads
reach the "marginally attentive voter" while debates tend to attract
voters who already have made up their minds and are rooting for a
candidate. Ads can be targeted to specific voters in particular states;
the message in a nationally televised debate is broader.
can help maintain or change momentum, as the first debate boosted
Romney, and as the second debate may revive Obama's prospects. But after
next week's final debate in Florida, focused on foreign policy, the
candidates and their allies will intensify their campaigns on the
airwaves. Romney raised $170 million last month and Obama $181 million,
both records for this campaign cycle, with appeals to supporters to help
pay for even more of those ads.
When the debates are over, the ads will still be on the air.