Fighting for his political life, President Barack Obama re-emerged in blistering form in an interruption-filled debate rematch, trying to diminish Mitt Romney’s rising stature by accusing him of dishonesty and extremism.
In a confrontational showdown, Romney did well against his suddenly higher expectations and an incumbent who decided to show up with passion this time. Portraying himself as a plausible alternative for struggling Americans, Romney declared: “We don’t have to live like this.”
What millions of voters got was an almost desperate competition of ideas and claims between two men who badly want the job and want to beat each other.
It felt almost nothing like the first, fairly drab debate that Romney won. Both guys were bouncing off their stools.
Obama’s nervous supporters will surely get a boost from his fiercely competitive showing, which in turn could drive up enthusiasm in the get-out-the-vote effort that could decide the election. Playing for undecided voters and women in particular, Obama turned the most straightforward questions from voters into a chance to contrast himself with Romney.
Almost lost, at times, were the town-hall participants who were supposed to play a major role in asking questions.
The candidates got in each other’s space and spoke over each other’s lines in a reflection of the race itself at this point — an intense, deadlocked contest for the future of the nation.
“You’ll get your chance. I’m still speaking,” Romney said during one exchange as the audience in the arena gasped.
“I’m the president,” Obama said when asked about the deadly attack on Americans in Libya. He pointed at Romney and said that suggestion that anyone on his team “would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do.”
As if to put to a bookend on his second debate performance, Obama chose his last minutes to mention what he never did last time, Romney’s caught-on-tape statement that nearly half the people of the nation “believe that they are victims.”
“Think about who he was talking about,” the president said in an appeal to the middle-class voters at the center of the entire campaign.
Obama’s strategy failed in the first debate on a Denver stage because, as the frontrunner, he had tried to sell his agenda without engaging Romney much. This time he tied Romney to Republicans in Congress and sought to make him look extreme compared with President George W. Bush.
Obama the aggressor showed up because debates are high-stakes reality television, where style can leave just as much impression as substance. The president gave more attention to how his answers would play on TV, knowing some viewers last time wondered whether he cared.
That’s why Obama, more than once, said he was looking forward to the next question.
Riding high but still facing a harder state-by-state electoral path to victory, Romney sought to prove he could relate well to voters in a town-hall setting against an incumbent who bests him on likability.
When one woman questioned Romney about his tax plan, she lost her train of thought midway through a list of the deductions that are popular with the middle class. The president jumped in: “You’re doing great!”
The burden, the anticipation, the opportunity — it all focused on Romney in the first debate because he was trailing and needing a breakthrough. This time, undecided voters needed to hear from Obama why they will be better off if they rehire him.
That’s exactly what one of the questioners, Michael Jones, asked Obama after saying he had voted for him last time. Obama recited all he has done — helping the auto industry, cutting taxes, tracking down Osama bin Laden — and then pivoted to his next economic plan.
Romney’s response to Jones: “I think you know better.”
It spoke to Romney’s approach this time: Stay aggressive but pull everything back to the theme that Obama has been a disappointment in the way that matters most to people, mainly their economic security.
The first debate reset the race to its current place: deadlocked nationally and extremely close in the states that will decide it.
Romney still has the more difficult path to victory because of the math of the map.
On the path to 270 Electoral College votes, Obama is presumed to start with 237 compared with Romney’s 191 based on the political leanings of individual states. So Romney must win more of the nine states up for grabs, particularly Ohio.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Ben Feller has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/benfellerdc