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Two Takes: Obama vs. Romney Round 2

Facing OffAs the candidates square off for debate No. 2, we asked our special correspondents Rick Davis and Mo Elleithee to give their takes from their respective sides of the political spectrum. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The second presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney comes at a time when even more polling suggests that the race is closer than ever.

NewsHour special contributors Rick Davis and Mo Elleithee return for a third time to share their perspectives on Tuesday’s town hall debate.

Davis served as campaign manager for both of Sen. John McCain’s presidential bids, and Elleithee is a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential effort. The pair recently offered their takes on the first presidential debate and the only vice presidential debate of the 2012 season.

We’ll update this blog occasionally through the end of the debate.


Photo by John Paraskevas/ Newsday

11:06 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: If the pollsters are correct, the onus was on President Obama to turn around his failing campaign and get the upper hand in this debate and he failed. He failed to create a connection with any one voter asking questions. Even his demeanor with the moderator Candy Crowley was at times testy. Articulate but wrong on the issues isn’t a formula for success.

The night was Mitt Romney’s. He appeared throughout the debate warmer, more bi-partisan, compassionate and connected to the questioners. Momentum was on Romney’s side going into this debate and it will continue coming out of the debate.

Romney scored an early knockdown on energy policy leaving the President unable to defend his own administration’s drilling policy. An hour later, deeply into the debate, the President still had trouble answering questions about his administration’s failures on immigration, assault weapons and jobs.

In the end when Obama had the opportunity to talk about how he is misperceived he chose to attack, again, Mitt Romney. Romney on the other hand chose to talk about his faith, his family and his vision for America.


11:05 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: What a difference 13 days makes!

Before this debate, I outlined three things I’d be watching for:

The “who gets me” test. I think the President won this test hands down. Time after time, the President connected with people in their living rooms. Romney connected with people in board rooms. Every time Romney tried to appeal to the middle class, Obama stopped him dead in his tracks and helped people see why his policies were bad for the middle class.

Photo by John Paraskevas/Newsday

The “better off” question. The President did a good job of talking about his accomplishments. But more importantly, he did an excellent job of focusing on the real-life consequences of both his and Romney’s proposals. Romney could not do that — heck, he couldn’t even defend his own positions.

Women’s issues. One of the highlights of the debates for the President was when he made the forceful argument that women’s health issues are not just women’s issues — they’re economic issues and middle class issues.

In addition, there were several other reasons why I believe the President was the hands-down winner

1) Romney looked small — especially when he kept trying to bully the moderator. (Hats off to Candy Crowley for not allowing it.)

2) Obama very effectively pointed out Romney hypocrisy. Whether on coal or on immigration, Obama did not let Romney moderate himself. He made him own the “severely conservative” positions he embraced in the primaries.

3) The Libya moment was devastating for Romney. Not only did the President look like a passionate Commander in Chief, he showed himself to be a strong leader. When Romney suggested the President politicized the investigation, the President’s outrage was genuine and appropriate. But worse of all, when Romney attacked the President for not calling the attacks an act of terror — and then was called out by the moderator for being wrong — Romney looked small and petty.

This was a fantastic night for the President. He stopped the bleeding after the last debate, and turned the tables on Romney.

But this was not just the debate that the President needed to have.
It was the debate that undecided voters needed to see.


10:14 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: Mitt Romney has actually given an articulate and fair response to a question on immigration reform. But what was most interesting was the question Romney asked the President — you promised comprehensive immigration reform in the first year of your administration, what happened? The President had the nerve to claim he was talking to Republicans and it didn’t go anywhere. Talk about not telling the truth, ask Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain if they ever saw or discussed a comprehensive immigration plan. Nada Mr. President, nada.


Photo by Charlie Neibergall/New York Daily News

10:07 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: President Obama: “The commitments I’ve made I’ve kept…” They just haven’t helped you!

If this was about feeling your pain, the President’s answer to a question from a “former” Obama supporter about his loss of faith resulted in an articulate response on how his administration’s accomplishments actually didn’t work for the middle class — tough luck but give me another term? Where is Bill Clinton when you need him? Sounds like “compassionate liberalism.”


9:50 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: Fantastic exchange for the President on equal pay for women. He couldn’t be more correct. These are not just women’s issues. These are family issues, they’re economic issues, and they’re middle class issues.

Romney had nothing.


9:43 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: Thirty minutes into the debate and we’re seeing a pretty remarkable reversal from the last one.

The President is laying out a clear vision, he’s connecting with people on a personal level, and he’s knocking down Romney falsehoods left and right. He’s energized, and he’s in command.

And most importantly, he’s connecting with real people, while demonstrating why Mitt Romney just doesn’t get them. He’s showing people what the real consequences are of a Romney presidency. And it’s not a pretty picture.

Romney is very much on the defensive. He’s stiff, uncomfortable and he really needs to stop trying to bully Candy Crowley. He looks angry.

But worst of all — he’s unable to defend his own plans. Either he doesn’t understand the consequences of his own policies, or he’s trying to hide them.

Good first half hour for the President.

Students watch the debate in the student center at Hofstra University. Photo by Craig Warga/New York Daily News


9:40 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: Mr. President, please let Mitt Romney cut taxes for the middle class. Let me get this straight: the President wants to raise taxes on the wealthy but no change for the middle class? Romney wants to leave the wealthy taxed at the current rate but cut taxes on the middle class. Am I missing something?

Just say it Mr. President, “if re-elected I’ll raise your taxes.” I hear you — I just hope the voters are listening.


9:28 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: Welcome back, Mr. President. We’re sure glad to see you!

As a former Hillary Clinton staffer, I can say that THIS is the guy who beat us four years ago and I couldn’t be happier to see him tonight!


9:26 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: It only took one question for the President to state “what Gov. Romney said just isn’t true” … isn’t there something more Obama can come up with than to keep wagging his finger at his opponent and saying he’s a liar. Stop.

Romney had an exceptional counter attack to Obama’s answer on energy. Rhetoric versus record. Obama wants to take credit for the energy boom even though his administration policy has made it harder. Nice.

Knock down in Nassau County: energy policy drew first blood — who would have guessed? Romney does a smack down on the President in the first 20 minutes. Wow.


8:52 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: If the President was trying to lower expectations by bombing in the last debate he has certainly succeeded. The President did so poorly in the first debate that it’s being compared to the famous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate. Nixon, ahead before the debate, fell behind after he bombed and later lost the election to JFK.

Romney FansHofstra students hold a rally in support of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney inside the university campus in advance of the second presidential debate. Photo by Alejandra Vilas/Newsday

That said, it’s hard to believe that the most aloof President of our time can have a successful comeback in a town hall debate format. Bill Clinton, a world champion town hall debater invented the “feel you pain” winning formula to this format. As relevant now as it was then, watch for the first candidate to try and hug one of the questioners. What great theater.


8:29 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: The stakes are pretty high for both candidates tonight. Here’s three things I’ll be looking for:

1) Who will personally connect with the audience? While it’s a town hall format, the audience that’s most important to connect with are middle class voters at home. One of the fundamental questions that voters ask when deciding who to cast their ballot for is, “which candidate gets me?” Gov. Romney has struggled with this throughout this campaign. During the last debate, he did better than he ever has — but it was more on style than substance. Tonight, both candidates need to make direct appeals to the middle class about how and why they “get them” better. Which brings me to…

2) Defining the “better off” question. Mitt Romney has been asking the old Ronald Reagan question: “are you better off than you were four years ago?” President Obama needs to do what Bill Clinton did at the Democratic National Convention — demonstrate, in concrete and personal terms, why we are better off. (And we are!) But then he has to do something even more important — demonstrate in concrete and personal terms why we will be even better off in four years if he’s reelected, and why we’ll be worse off if Mitt Romney is reelected.

Rallying Hofstra StudentsHofstra students rally for President Obama prior to the start of the debate. Photo by Howard Schnapp/Newsday

3) Women. It’s been said thousands of times, but women are going to determine this election. On issues from women’s health care, access to contraception, equal pay and countless others, the Romney-Ryan agenda will undoubtedly set women back. Yet these issues have gotten very little play in the first presidential and vice presidential debates. Both Romney and Ryan know that their agenda is incredibly unpopular with women voters, which is why every time they come up, they try to brush them aside. The President can’t let Romney do that tonight. When Romney says that women are more concerned with economic issues (which he always does), the President needs to make clear that issues regarding women’s health care and equal pay are economic issues.

Finally, I’ll say this. Heading into the first debate, the pressure was on Gov. Romney to stop a slide. His back was against the wall, and he delivered. Yet the fundamentals of the race didn’t really change — it’s tightened a bit, but the President’s maintained a slight edge in the battleground states.

Tonight, the tables are turned. The pressure is on the President to change the narrative and regain some momentum after the reaction to his performance in the first debate. As someone who worked against him in the 2008 primaries, I saw firsthand that when his back is against the wall, this President always delivers.

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