When two presidential candidates battle roughly to a tie in a debate, is there a winner?
Did President Obama win on Tuesday simply because he was able to hold his own this time on the debate stage with Mitt Romney? Did Romney win because the momentum he had built during the last two weeks wasn't completely reversed?
The pressure on the president was greater, of course, because of his disastrous showing in the first debate two weeks ago, when Romney seized control and Obama barely registered a coherent objection. A second loss would have been disastrous for the president's campaign.
But this time, a different Obama showed up. The president was feisty, assertive and energized. He questioned Romney's arithmetic; he attacked his opponent's honesty; he reminded voters of the severely conservative positions Romney took during his long quest for the GOP nomination, and he rebutted Republican attacks on his record.
"Gov. Romney doesn't have a five-point plan," Obama charged. "He has a one-point plan — and that plan is to make sure folks at the top play by a different set of rules."
And yet, for all that, the Long Island town meeting wasn't a knockout for Obama. The relentlessly on-message Romney who surprised Obama in Denver showed up again on Tuesday, and scored plenty of the same points.
"The president's policies haven't put people back to work," he said. "We don't have to live like this.... My priority is jobs. I know how to make that happen.
"If you elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get. You're going to get a repeat of the last four years," he said.
The central exchanges of the debate played out like a slugfest between two boxers with very different styles but roughly equal strength. Romney attacked Obama's record, especially on the economy; Obama responded by attacking Romney's credibility.
So where does that leave us? Just about where we expected to be at this point, with an extremely close election.
Partisans will score the bout according to their tastes. Democrats will hail it as the revival of their champion in his current populist persona. Republicans will argue that Romney eviscerated the Obama record, and that the president didn't present much of a program to show how his second term might improve on the first.
And both sides, oddly, will be mostly right. The candidates' second debate confirmed what polls were already telling us: The campaign has returned to its pre-convention deadlock, a race that's within a single percentage point nationwide and too close to call in battleground states such as Ohio and Virginia.
For that reason, if I had to call the debate, I'd give it to Obama — not on substance but on what it did for his prospects.
For a week or so, it appeared that Romney was gaining momentum above and beyond the bump he got from his upset victory in the first debate. Enthusiasm was leaching out of Democratic ranks at the very moment they needed to rally volunteers to hector their voters to the polls. That erosion has probably now been stopped.
And Obama had good moments on at least two important issues.
The president largely won an exchange over equal pay for women — the quintessential swing voters in this election — noting that he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law over the opposition of many Republicans. Romney argued that his record as governor of Massachusetts, when he took pains to include women in his Cabinet and get them home in time for dinner, was female-friendly, but it sounded distinctly second-best.
And Obama used a tough question about inadequate security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to man up. "I'm the president and I'm always responsible," he said, adding that the suggestion that his administration was playing politics with the issue "when we lost four of our own … [was] offensive."
The president capitalized, as well, on a rash decision by Romney to volunteer that contrary to popular belief, "I care about 100% of the American people."
That gave Obama the opening he needed, in the final moments of the debate, to remind voters of Romney's disastrous assertion that 47% of Americans are dependent on the government and short on personal responsibility.
"Think about who he was talking about," Obama said. "Folks on Social Security. Veterans who have sacrificed for their country…. I want to fight for them."
An ancient rule of politics holds that it is better to be lucky than smart. In Tuesday's debate, both candidates turned in smart performances — but Obama was also lucky. His campaign can only hope that was an omen for the remaining three weeks of the campaign.