For those who insist that debates must be won or lost, here's the tally on who emerged victorious in last night's debate between President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney:
Obama 46 percent, Romney 39 percent (CNN poll)
Obama 37 percent, Romney 30 percent (CBS poll)
So round two goes to the president, but it wasn't a knockout — certainly not like the first debate, where Obama's listless, disengaged performance resulted in a poll-changing Romney rout.
Gasoline prices, taxes, immigration, Libya — both men scored points in exchanges that, at times, got quite heated. Both interrupted each other, accused each other of lying, and appealed to the moderator for more time. They invaded each other's space, pointing accusatory fingers and wearing derisive expressions on their faces.
Early on — and it wasn't heard on TV — there was an audible gasp from the audience when Romney told the president, "you'll get your chance in a moment." And even though the audience had been told to keep quiet, there was a bit of laughter a few minutes later when Obama warned Americans that "you'll be back in the same mess" of a few years ago if Romney wins.
The president, who was under the gun to step up his game, wasted no time in attacking Romney. Dispensing with the niceties from the get-go, he began by mentioning how Romney proposed letting the automakers go bankrupt. That led to this exchange:
ROMNEY: He keeps saying, you want to take Detroit bankrupt. Well, the president took Detroit bankrupt. You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did. And I think it's important to know that that was a process that was necessary to get those companies back on their feet, so they could start hiring more people. That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened.
OBAMA: What Governor Romney said just isn't true. He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open. And we would have lost a million jobs. And that — don't take my word for it, take the executives at GM and Chrysler, some of whom are Republicans, may even support Governor Romney. But they'll tell you his prescription wasn't going to work.
The rescue of the auto industry is one reason Obama continues to lead in the critical swing state of Ohio (18 electoral votes) — where one in eight jobs is tied to auto manufacturing. The president campaigns there this afternoon.
For his part, Romney nailed the president on energy production, pointing out — correctly — that increases in oil and gas production have come largely on private land, not on the vast swaths of land controlled by the federal government:
ROMNEY: And production on private — on government land —
OBAMA: Production is up.
ROMNEY: — is down.
OBAMA: No, it isn't.
ROMNEY: Production on government land of oil is down 14 percent.
OBAMA: Governor —
ROMNEY: And production on gas —
OBAMA: It's just not true.
ROMNEY: It's absolutely true.
But Obama — who has spent up to 12 hours a day preparing for last night's showdown — got even, attacking Romney's purported support of the coal industry, pointing out that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney favored shutting down a dirty coal-burning plant.
Romney also pointed out, correctly, that gasoline prices have doubled on Obama's watch. But this is extraordinarily misleading. Gasoline prices were low when Obama was sworn in — $1.89 a gallon, says AAA — because they had collapsed during the economic meltdown. Just six months earlier, in July 2008, the price at the pump was $4.11 a gallon — triple the 2002 level (also a low as the nation emerged from recession).
So here's the question: If you blame Obama for gasoline prices doubling on his watch, who do you blame for them tripling between 2002 and 2008? Republicans never mention this — nor do they mention that gasoline exports have tripled in the last year and a half — but extra production is being sold overseas, where demand is growing, not here at home, where demand is falling. Surely a sharp businessman like Romney understands the concept of supply and demand, and how global commodity markets function.
There were no knockout blows, no particularly memorable zingers. But in the end, both men did what they needed to do. Romney turned in another solid performance, while Obama righted the ship. Fox News' Chris Wallace noted that the president stopped the bleeding, while Fox commentator Charles Krauthammer said Obama won the evening on points.
Even better for Obama: His energetic performance last night was probably seen by an even bigger TV audience than the 67 million who saw him flounder two weeks ago. His second debate with John McCain in 2008 had an audience that was 21 percent larger than the first.
Whether any of this moves the polls remains to be seen, of course. There is one more debate — on foreign policy Monday night — but in some respects, it doesn't matter, given that millions of people in 40 states have already voted. The election has come down to a narrow sliver of undecideds — perhaps five or six percent — and the seven or eight swing states. We're 20 days from the final verdict, and though President Obama appears to have more paths to the magic 270 electoral votes, this is, and is likely to remain, a nasty dogfight until the very end.