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The battle for America’s top job continues. The two candidates are each failing to take a decisive lead, and as the second live televised debate was beamed to millions worldwide, a narrow winner emerged from the night. The same cannot be said for the campaigns, which remain in deadlock.
Two weeks ago Republican contender Mitt Romney was perceived by many media sources to have “won” the debate with President Barack Obama. The incumbent was said to be tired-looking, lacklustre, and generally underwhelming, even standing with his guard down like an exhausted fighter in the final rounds at the end of his career. There was little by way of trading punches, and he looked punch-drunk as he appeared to nod as ideas were mooted that ran in contradiction to his own policies and record. More importantly, he was not seen to pick up on statements and claims made by Romney which the re-election campaign argue are not true, and exploit those holes in Mitt’s defence.
Last night (Tuesday 16th October) the arena had changed. The contenders were no longer tethered behind their podiums, but were instead free to roam the ring. Questions came from members of an eighty-strong contingent of undecided voters with ringside seats, watched by an audience of hundreds more. Obama, known for his gifted oratory rather than interpersonal skills, attempted to channel Clinton by speaking with the audience as equals, while appearing to have a lot more spark than their last encounter. Romney set out in a spirited and energetic assault, addressing the audience, the moderator, cameras, and confronting Obama face-to-face as he tried to establish some dominance.
One heated exchange early in the debate saw Romney confronting Obama on drilling permits for oil production on federal land. Romney prowled and followed Obama around the stage, haranguing him verbally and preventing him from responding by speaking over him. Far from having him on the ropes, this was more like a boxer holding his opponent to prevent any punches being swung. Eventually a response was possible, but the scene was a little ugly – reminiscent of warring schoolboys rather than professionals at the peaks of their talents. This sort of confrontation does not often play well with voters, and is likely to be seized upon by campaign managers on both sides.
This early grappling aside, both contenders largely kept up their guard, traded probing blows, but failed to land any big sluggers or surprise left hooks.
The Romney campaign so far has been characterised by holding two separate narratives –one for the campaign trail that plays to the party faithful, and another for the debates that plays to the centre – with competing claims and promises for how it will fulfil its pledges. It has also had a tendency to take snippets of Obama speeches and misquote them or place them out of context in order to paint the Obama presidency as a failure – a point noted by both liberal AND conservative “fact-checkers”.
The President was charged with failing to exploit these differences in his last outing, but this time he was able to keep making those points. Like a fighter landing repetitive small blows on a small cut to open it up, Obama was eventually able to draw blood when Romney’s claims that the president glossed over the Libyan embassy killings as being protests not terrorism had to be corrected by the moderator.
Strict rules govern televised debates, instructing those in attendance not to clap or cheer or show any form of support whatsoever, upon pain of ejection from the theatre – this notwithstanding, the audience applauded as Romney was sanctioned for his blow below the belt.
This moment appeared to change the mood in the debating hall, with Romney’s energy being sapped, his shoulders dropped and his movements took on an air of defeat. Obama, on the other hand, found some confidence and swagger, finally beginning to move like a defending champion rather than a beleaguered man on his way out. It may not have been the big left hook that turned his opponent’s legs to jelly, but the shift was enough to turn a deadlock into a tie with a result. Obama may not have “come out swinging” as many pundits speculated he must, but he performed steadily, and looked ready to grind out a victory on points over the full twelve rounds.
Up until the point of correction, the debate was evenly matched. Much spin will follow from the two camps as to how their man actually won on the night.
The President’s narrow win – supported by early post-debate polling on CNN – may be too little, too late. Wider electoral polling data from a variety of partisan, media, and independent sources suggests his leads of three weeks ago across almost all swing-states have now slipped to statistical ties, and slim deficits to Romney. The momentum is against him and he needed a stronger win to halt the slide. With one more debate remaining between now and election night, many commentators now agree that Obama needs to land some big punches if he is to win on November 6th.