Mitt Romney fueled up with rotisserie chicken. President Obama wolfed down steak and potatoes. Favoring blue and red ties, respectively, as their trunks, the two met for a rumble in a bright red ring on Long Island Tuesday night.
There wasn’t a knockout blow in this, the debate in which Obama sorely needed to not have a Denver repeat. But there were plenty of punches that should reverberate into next week’s finale on everything from birth control to immigration to, yes, Big Bird.
Romney went from rhetorically cornering Obama during the Denver debate to physically pursuing Obama during heated exchanges, prompting postgame debates about personal-space violations. Obama at times turned to moderator Candy Crowley for a lifeline as the CNN correspondent lost control of the 11 rounds. Even though it was a town-hall format with an audience in the round, the fighters were squarely focused on one another as the audience of “uncommitted” voters was an afterthought.
Even Obama’s sparring partner in the practice rounds, surprisingly upbeat for how his training worked out last time, seemed eager to join in the melee — as Romney.
“Tlkd 2 press @hofstra/got a question in french — could’ve answered as Mitt and stayed in character?” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) tweeted before the debate. “Reporter asked me if I’m glad Bobby V gone, if in-character, as Mitt mighta said, I love firing people.”
“4 petes sake/runnin 4 office can’t have illegals – oops sorry I was still in-character as Mitt,” Kerry tweeted during the matchup.
Obama supporters expressed relief that their chosen one hadn’t bombed the sudden-death debate.
“Obama dominated Romney tonight in every single way: in substance, manner, style, and personal appeal,” wrote the president’s harshest pundit critic from the first debate, The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan. “He came back like a lethal but restrained predator, was able to defend own record, think swiftly on his feet.”
The two were quickly off with a question from a college student about how he’ll find work after graduation, and were quickly on to a question about energy prices — when things really started getting heated.
“We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline? I will never know,” Romney said, not referencing Keystone XL by name.
“And when I hear Governor Romney say he’s a big coal guy, I mean, keep in mind, when — Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, ‘This plant kills,’ and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal,” Obama said, mirroring the refrain sent out by his campaign around the same time.
Both candidates came in with their set talking points, just waiting for an appropriate — or less than appropriate — audience question to notch them in.
Both candidates also came with an attitude and were rarely in their chairs. Romney was doggedly pursuing Obama on the follow-ups, and Obama got the message not to look down — and not to pull a Biden laugh-a-thon, either.
“Both candidates are being too feisty,” tweeted former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. “They both need to show the audience more respect.”
When Obama touted his all-of-the-above energy strategy, Romney broke in: “In the last four years, you cut permits and licenses on federal land and federal waters in half.”
“Not true, Governor Romney,” Obama responded.
“So how much did you cut?”
“How much did you cut them by, then?” Romney continued.
“Governor, we have actually produced more oil –”
“No, no. How much did you cut licenses and permits on federal land and federal waters?”
“Governor Romney, here’s what we did. There were a whole bunch of oil companies.”
“No, no, I had a question and the question was how much did you cut them by?”
“You want me to answer a question –”
“How much did you cut them by?”
“I’m happy to answer the question,” Obama said.
And the tangle continued over oil and gas production, into tax plans.
“We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood in terms of how he pays for that,” Obama charged. “Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor. If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend $7 or $8 trillion, and then 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 take such a sketchy deal and neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.”
“Sketchy,” many noted, became the catchword of this debate as “malarkey” was to the vice presidential debate. David Axelrod, however, tweeted the y-deficient hashtag #sketchdeal when saying, “Mitt a little tongue-tied trying to explain the unexplainable.”
But it didn’t win the trending topic battle — that came with a question about women’s pay.
Romney said that as governor, he was brought all male applicants for his cabinet. “We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet,” he said. “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
Thus, “binders full of women” became as big as Big Bird in the first debate and Biden’s smirk in the veep showdown. Before the debate was over, the binders had a Twitter account and a Tumblr site.
Obama stressed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which has been a staple of every campaign stump. Romney hit at the contraception mandate, adding, “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.”
Romney was asked how he would differentiate himself for George W. Bush, who has been absent from the campaign trail. He said he would add more free trade agreements, balance the budget, and focus on small business instead of big business.
“And the thing I find the most troubling about ObamaCare, well it’s a long list, but one of the things I find most troubling is that when you go out and talk to small businesses and ask them what they think about it, they tell you it keeps them from hiring more people,” he added, notching in that point when there were no healthcare-specific questions during the night.
“You know, there are some things where Governor Romney is different from George Bush. George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation,” Obama said.
“George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, so there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy. In some ways, he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy.”
Romney hammered away at Obama over unemployment and the number of people on food stamps when a man who voted for the Democrat in 2008 noted that everyday living expenses had gotten worse. Obama noted that he had killed Osama bin Laden.
Then came a question for Romney about how he’d deal with immigrants “without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society.”
“When the president ran for office, he said that he’d put in place, in his first year, a piece of legislation — he’d file a bill in his first year that would reform our — our immigration system, protect legal immigration, stop illegal immigration. He didn’t do it,” Romney said.
“If we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gangbangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families,” Obama said. “And that’s what we’ve done.”
Romney then asked to jump back to an earlier line of debate about Chinese investments.
“Governor Romney, you can make it short. See all these people? They’ve been waiting for you,” Crowley said.
“Any investments I have over the last eight years have been managed by a blind trust. And I understand they do include investments outside the United States, including in Chinese companies,” Romney said. “Mr. President, have you looked at your pension? Have you looked at your pension?”
“You know, I — I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long,” Obama retorted.
“Let me give you some advice. Look at your pension. You also have investments in Chinese companies. You also have investments outside the United States. You also have investments through a Caymans trust,” Romney said.
“We’re way off topic here, Governor Romney,” Crowley said.
“I thought we were talking about immigration,” said Obama, before Crowley asked Romney to sit down.
The two tangled over the Benghazi attack, foreshadowing the final debate next week on foreign policy, when Romney pressed Obama on whether the president called the attack an act of terror in the Rose Garden the day after the murders.
“I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” Romney said.
“Get the transcript,” Obama shot back, leaving Crowley to say both candidates were right in some way.
(”No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation,” Obama said Sept. 12 in the Rose Garden.)
To a subsequent question about assault weapons, Romney’s answer diverged into telling young people to get married before having kids. Obama’s answer veered into promotion of his community college retraining programs.
When asked to wrap up with the “biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate,” Romney said that he cares “about 100 percent of the American people.”
“My passion probably flows from the fact that I believe in God. And I believe we’re all children of the same God. I believe we have a responsibility to care for one another. I served as a missionary for my church. I served as a pastor in my congregation for about 10 years. I’ve sat across the table from people who were out of work and worked with them to try and find new work or to help them through tough times,” the GOP nominee said.
“I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about,” Obama said. “Folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives. Veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income.”
The CNN poll conducted right after the debate found 46 percent of respondents picking the president as the evening’s victor, with 39 percent picking Romney.
Nearly three-quarters said Obama performed better than expected, though nearly half said the debate wouldn’t shift their votes one way or the other — with the other half split evenly between Obama and Romney.
“OK, Obama staged comeback. But can he make up lost ground, or just not lose more?” tweeted Larry Sabato, who noted that the rules had disintegrated through the night. “Avalanche of polls will tell us.”