Romney, Obama go toe-to-toe in townhall debate

It wasn’t a fluke.

After a no-contest first debate in which Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney appeared to enjoy himself as he set forth his economic policy plan, deftly deflected President Barack Obama’s criticisms, and single-handedly engineered a masterful campaign combat, Romney proved he had enough energy to go another round.

Romney continues to enjoy a significant polling bump following his first debate performance early this month, but the stakes tonight were as high as ever. The uncontested Romney win was played by some in the media as just a very bad performance for Obama–the president himself has even joked publicly about his bad night. Romney needed to prove himself the clearly superior debater against an Obama primed to fight fiercely and give no quarter.

Complicating matters was the more intimate town-hall style debate format, which proved an obstacle for John McCain during the 2008 election cycle as he struggled to connect with the audience.

In style, Obama appeared much more aggressive than in his first debate appearance and missed no opportunity to disavow Romney’s claims. But Romney matched him blow-for-blow, making the debate floor look like a boxing ring at points throughout the night.

With an on-stage audience of undecided voters posing pre-selected questions on a range of topics, a big surprise of the night was how heavily weighted the 90-minute debate was geared toward the economy and domestic issues.

The first three questions were all on the economy, covering jobs for young college graduates, fuel prices, and tax breaks.

As a renowned budget wizard who has campaigned largely on the plight of the U.S. economy under Obama, Romney should have been in his element early in the debate. He may have relied too heavily on earlier talking points, though, failing to fully put to rest a challenge from Obama that he would not be able to pay for trillions of dollars in planned tax breaks.

“I want to get us on track to a balanced budget, and I’m going to reduce the tax burden on middle income families. And what’s that going to do? It’s going to help those families, and it’s going to create incentives to start growing jobs again in this country,” he said.

Romney did take Obama to task on assertions that his presidency had been a boon for domestic fuel production.

“But what we don’t need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas. This has not been Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal,” Romney said. “…In the last four years, (Obama) cut permits and licenses on federal land and federal waters in half,” Romney said.

The audience did bring some new topics to the table mid-debate, sending softball questions to the candidates about the equality of women and gun control.

Though Obama highlighted his sponsorship of the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay act upon first taking office, Romney had unexpected ammo for those buying the “Republican war on women” narrative: the fact that, as Governor of Massachusetts, the University of New York in Albany found his cabinet had the most women in senior leadership than any of the other 50 states, because Romney sought quality women out for the jobs.

But he lost a chance to press Obama on his assertion that millions of women rely on Planned Parenthood for, among other things, mammograms (a debunked claim) as debate moderator, CNN political analyst Candy Crowley pushed the candidates to the next question.

The greatest missed opportunity of the night for Romney came with the only foreign policy question, regarding Obama’s handling of the aftermath of attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that left a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead.

Romney asserted, rightly, that Obama had allowed a false narrative sourcing the attacks to anger over a satirical American-made YouTube video, rather than terrorism, to continue for nearly two weeks following the attacks. But when Obama pointed out that he had mentioned the phrase “acts of terror” in a speech in the Rose Garden immediately following the attacks and Crowley backed him up, Romney appeared stymied and did not press further.

Obama has yet to answer for a speech to the U.N. General Assembly given 13 days after the attacks that mentioned the amateur video six times and did not address terror in that context once.

Ultimately, the debate was a well-matched fight, but Romney missed multiple chances to land decisive blows. As a result, the margin of victory was narrow, but Obama may have edged a rhetorical victory.