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Barone: Thoughts on the second presidential debate

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone,Politics Digest

I compared the first presidential debate to the Battle of Little Big Horn. This second presidential debate seemed to me like one of those Civil War battles—I’m not enough of a Civil War buff to say which one—in which both armies battered each other but neither came out a clear victor and the war went on. This strikes me as one of those presidential debates, like most presidential debates, in which most Democratic voters believe the Democratic candidate won and most Republican voters believe the Republican candidate won.

Barack Obama was clearly more engaged, more involved and even somewhat more informed about the details of public policy than he was in the Oct. 3 presidential debate, and by a long shot. To me he still looked angry and defensive, while Romney maintained that tight smile while he wasn’t speaking; but perhaps that’s just a partisan impression.

My sense is that Obama did well enough to pump enthusiasm into voters now committed to him, and that it built on the enthusiasm among strong Democratic partisans pumped up by Joe Biden’s bizarre performance in the Oct. 11 vice presidential debate. This would tend to narrow the enthusiasm gap which has favored Republicans from fall 2009 to the national conventions and favored them again after the Oct. 3 first presidential debate. That counts for something.

When I look at poll results, I discount them somewhat by what I perceive to be the enthusiasm gap: a 1 point Obama poll in a state, when Republicans have a big advantage in the enthusiasm gap, looks to me like a Romney win; when the balance of enthusiasm is equal, it looks to me like an Obama win. Romney was effective in reciting, again and again, the dismal economic results of the Obama policies and at a late point he tellingly compared the Obama “recovery” with the recovery under Ronald Reagan. And the number of jobs created during those two periods should take into account that in the early 1980s there were about 230 million people in this country and now there are about 310 million, 35% more.

Romney was adroit on immigration, though he did not please some implacable opponents of amnesty by indicating a basic agreement with the Dream Act concept (legalization of young illegal immigrants). And was well prepared and hit it out of the park on how he was different from George W. Bush: different times, different policies. But it was interesting that in his closing statement Obama felt obliged to talk about his faith in free enterprise as the engine of growth in America: Romney’s theme. From somewhere up above, Milton Friedman smiles.

Romney missed some chances. There wasn’t much on Obamacare (except for Romney bizarrely bringing it up in his closing statement). He didn’t hit Libya as hard as he could have, and Crowley wrongly suggested that Obama in his Rose Garden statement attributed the attack to terrorism. He simply said that we would always oppose acts of terrorism. Two weeks later he was still mentioning the offensive-to-Muslims video six times in his United Nations speech. Romney made that point, but not nearly as well as he could have. Obama talked a couple of times about his green energy programs. But Romney never hit Obama on the Solyndra bankruptcy or the bankruptcy of another green energy firm A123 Systems this week. Was his team concentrating so hard on debate prep that they didn’t read this week’s news stories?

Obama missed some things too. He went after Romney on his taxes a couple of times. He saved the 47% for his closing statement when Romney couldn’t refute it, but Romney used his own closing statement before to answer it preemptively by saying he was for 100% of the American people.

Who was more presidential? This is a judgment call. The two candidates were clearly trying to establish dominance. My view is that on balance Romney came off as more presidential. Others may disagree. We’ve seen voters moving toward Romney since the Oct. 3 debate. My sense is that the balance hasn’t been moved in the Obama direction.

In my Wednesday Examiner column, written on deadline before the debate, I argued that Romney has made significant advance among woman voters. I think he maintained that tonight.

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Michael Barone

Senior Political Analyst
The Washington Examiner