Rumble in Long Island: Plenty of Punches Propel Campaign to Final Showdown

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?"

"Not true."

"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.