The last question of Tuesday night’s debate was the kind of query that tests the cleverness of an accomplished politician.
It also – quite unexpectedly -- gave each candidate the opportunity to address one of Mitt Romney’s worst moments of the campaign. That’s because, curiously, Romney raised the issue himself.
“What do you believe is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?” asked undecided voter Barry Green. “Using specific examples, can you take this opportunity to debunk that misperception and set us straight?”
Romney answered first. “I think the president’s campaign has tried to characterize me as someone who is very different than who I am,” said the former Massachusetts governor. “I care about 100% of the American people. I want 100% of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. I care about our kids.” The very mention of a percentage number instantly evoked for many Romney’s infamous statement, secretly videotaped at a Florida fundraiser in May but released only last month, that 47% of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes, think of themselves as “victims” who are dependent on the government and will never vote for him.
Romney used his final moments to remind viewers that he is devoutly religious and served both as a pastor and a missionary for his church (which he never named, though most people certainly know that he is Mormon). He also recalled his time leading the Olympics “when they were in trouble,” and his leadership as Massachusetts governor bringing universal healthcare to his state. He recited a litany of bad economic statistics and vowed, if he becomes president, to “get America working again.”
Obama defended himself against the conservative claim that he does not fully embrace the free enterprise system. “I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known,” Obama said. “I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy is grown. That’s how we built the world’s greatest middle class.”
And he complimented Romney as “a good man” who “loves his family, cares about his faith.”
But perhaps more important, given that he had the debate’s last word, Obama jumped on the opening Romney had provided by alluding to his “47%” remarks.
“When he said behind closed doors that 47% of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility,” said Obama, “think about who he was talking about: folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives, veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country, students who are out there trying to, hopefully, advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams, soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now, people who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income.”
The president invoked his grandfather, a World War II veteran who attended college on the GI Bill.
“That wasn’t a handout,” Obama said. “That was something that advanced the entire country, and I want to make sure that the next generation has those same opportunities. That’s why I’m asking for your vote and that’s why I’m asking for another four years.”
And with that, the second presidential debate was over. A final debate is scheduled Monday in Florida. Election day is three weeks away.