HEMPSTEAD, New York - Few observers believed the second presidential debate, held Tuesday night here at Hofstra University, would end as cleanly or as decisively as the first showdown between President Obama and Mitt Romney two weeks ago in Denver. And it didn't.
Where the Denver debate produced a clear victory for Romney, the Hofstra session finished in a muddle. Obama, expected to be more aggressive than in the first debate, did exactly as expected. But Romney matched the president's aggressiveness blow by blow, sometimes to the point of making viewers a little uneasy at the sight of two men who occasionally looked as if they might decide to roll up their sleeves and take the dispute outside. It was the kind of debate after which partisans on both sides argue that their man won.
Of course a muddle was a huge improvement for Obama, and the president's campaign aides knew it. Unlike in Denver, when Romney surrogates rushed to the Spin Room to discuss their candidate's victory while Team Obama remained out of sight for several minutes as they got their story together, at Hofstra it was Obama aides who raced to the Spin Room first, even before the debate had ended. They weren't hiding, and they weren't making excuses.
"The president gave a dominant performance," said campaign manager Jim Messina. "I think he was on point, I think he was strong."
"[Romney] was backpedaling all night, he looked nervous and defensive," added top adviser David Axelrod.
"[Romney] was exposed at every turn," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
As for reaction from Team Romney, the official interpretation of the debate seemed to be that Obama had scored on style, but not on substance. "If you ask me on style points, I think they both had strong moments," said former Senator Jim Talent, a Romney adviser. "But on the substance of it, I came away thinking Romney was stronger. The president was obviously more aggressive tonight, but he was aggressive in trying to distract attention from the same record."
Romney had one really good moment and one really bad moment. The good moment came after a man said he had voted for Obama in 2008 but was no longer as optimistic as he was then. After Obama tried to defend his record, Romney took over with a cogent, focused, and nearly perfect indictment of Obama's performance in office.
"I think you know better," Romney told the man. "I think you know that these last four years haven't been so good as the president just described, and that you don't feel like you're confident that the next four years are going to be much better either. I can tell you that if you were to elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get. You're going to get a repeat of the last four years. We just can't afford four more years like the last four years."
Romney then ticked off the particulars: the unemployment rate, no plans to reform entitlements, no immigration reform, the deficit, Obamacare and the cost of health insurance, job creation, poverty, food stamps, Dodd-Frank, and more. "He's great as a speaker and describing his plans and his vision," Romney said of Obama. "That’s wonderful, except we have a record to look at."
Romney's really bad moment came on the issue that many conservatives had been eager for him to address more forcefully, the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. The case against Obama was, frankly, pretty easy to make. In the months before the attack, the administration denied requests for more security in Libya, and then, for nearly two weeks after the attack, attributed the violence to a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video on the Internet rather than the terrorist attack officials knew it was.
In defending his actions, Obama said, "The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world…that this was an act of terror." What Obama was referring to was a single line in a single speech in which he said, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."
Now, anyone who has followed the story knows that, while Obama did utter those words once, on September 12, he spent the next two weeks condemning the video and specifically refusing to attribute the attack to terrorism. Instead of pointing that out, Romney, who was apparently unaware of Obama's September 12 remarks, treated Obama's statement as a revelation. "I want to make sure we get that on the record," Romney said, "because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror."
"Get the transcript," Obama said. And indeed, the transcript contained the "act of terror" remark. Romney could have made just as strong a case against Obama without tangling over that line. In the end, the discussion of Libya was something of a mess, and it appeared that most Republicans viewed Romney's treatment of the subject as an opportunity lost.
Romney's bad moment led to an even worse moment for Candy Crowley, the CNN anchor who moderated the debate. When Obama said, "Get the transcript," Crowley decided to play fact-checker and interjected that Obama had indeed said "act of terror." "He used the word -- " Crowley said.
"Can you say it a little louder, Candy?" Obama responded, looking for affirmation from the moderator.
As the crowd applauded, a clearly nervous Crowley tried to balance things out by saying to Romney, "It did, as well, take -- it did, as well, take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that." It didn't make much sense, and as Romney began to get back on track, Crowley changed the subject.
In a post-debate appearance, Crowley conceded that Romney "was right in the main, I just think he picked the wrong word."
Afterward, Romney's advisers didn't want to complain publicly about the job Crowley had done. But they were not happy. Some felt that Crowley had jumped into the conversation on Obama's behalf more than once, that she had allowed Obama to take more time speaking than Romney, and then, in the Libya exchange, had gone beyond the moderator's role.
But that grumbling was confined to private conversations. All one member of the Romney circle would say for public consumption was, "Sometimes you like the refs, sometimes you don't like the refs, but you play the game anyway."
And this game ended mostly in a tie. Even with the various missteps, there were no disastrous gaffes and no knockout punches. After the debate, most non-partisan observers found themselves scoring the debate on points. As with the first debate, it will take a few days to see what effect, if any, it will have on the voting public. But unlike Denver, no candidate could walk away triumphant.