Obama Wins, Town Hall Style Debates Lose

Last night’s Presidential Debate was not a reversal of the first, but it should mark a reversal of Obama’s fortunes. Obama did not dominate the second debate to nearly the same degree Romney did the first, but his much-improved performance will quell doubts about the fire in his belly and builds on the momentum-halting performance VP Joe Biden blasted out last week. Now, Romney will be back on the defensive in the crucial two weeks before the election, and Obama has the chance to build excitement again.

The debate itself was…odd. The Town Hall format really never came alive. Neither candidate made great use of the opportunity to speak with the individuals standing right in front of them. It would have been relatively easy for the candidates to ask questions of the questioners, to get to know the a bit, to show that they care. With so many questioners asking some version of “I voted for you the first time, Mr Obama, and now I’m disappointed and nervous”, Obama had a real chance to connect with voters and show he understands their disappointment and frustration. He didn’t do that particularly well, partly because he was over-compensating for his first debate performance with a vocal tone and bearing which was a little to big and loud for the setting. Romney, likewise, didn’t seem at home in the Town Hall – although his legendary lack of comfort in such spaces means that he performed above expectations in this area while Obama merely met them.

The moderation was spotty, too, with Crowley cutting a rather wheedling figure as she begged and pleaded with the candidates, repeatedly promising that they’ll get their fair time. She improved toward the end – as did Obama – by becoming more firm and forceful, but generally she could have invited the candidates to speak with each other more during the time established for just such an interaction. The Town Hall format is worthless if it doesn’t encourage engagement with the questioners or between the candidates, and it felt a missed opportunity last night.

On points, this was an Obama win. He was not only energetic but positive, firm, and powerful. He showed a strong command of the issues and conveyed his achievements and plans in clear, simple terms. He maintained a consistency of presentation which Romney lacked as he became more flustered and whiny with the moderator. Obama was particularly effective at drawing the contrast between his and Romney’s vision of America, making good use of Romney’s many missteps and shifting positions to push home the danger he represents.

Romney wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t as good. He at times seemed petulant when challenging the moderator, while Obama sounded energetic but genial. He repeated some stock phrases too many times, and his answers frequently were so unspecific as to be worthless. His answer on gun control was especially ridiculous, veering as it did into areas completely unrelated.

Romney’s worst moment was on Libya, where he got the worst of a high-stakes exchange with the President. He directly asked, while standing center-stage, whether the President had called the attacks on the Embassy an “act of terror”. When Obama responded that he did, Romney repeated the question, before being corrected by the moderator. This was the one moment in the debate when the audience asserted itself, applauding loudly at Romney’s embarrassment – particularly damaging as this essentially takes this issue off the table for the Romney campaign.

This was the break-out moment for Obama, who went on to convincingly win the debate. It was not a masterful performance, but it was an energetic and competent one, in which he seemed more Presidential than his opponent.

The game is still afoot.

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