Barack Obama takes command in second presidential debate

Barack Obama takes command in second presidential debate
(David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)

If the Barack Obama who showed up for the second presidential debate had shown up for the first debate, there is a good chance Republicans would now be sullenly turning their thoughts to 2016 and arguing over how they got tricked into nominating a loser two elections in a row.

The Obama who did show up for that first debate breathed new life into Romney’s candidacy by being lifeless himself. Tuesday night, though, the president was in command. He reinvigorated his own campaign by delivering the best debate performance of his political career.

Romney was still good, but, this time, he had a top-notch opponent to deal with and, at times, looked just a bit rattled. The fact that he brought up the 47% issue himself at the very end of the debate, thereby giving Obama a perfect setup to deliver a powerful final punch, suggests that Romney’s mental discipline was slipping. Why else would he have provided the president such a wide opening to attack on the very issue that has most damaged Romney’s fall campaign -- his private diatribe against the half of Americans he thinks are societal leeches living off the federal government?

Some think Obama clearly won the debate -- early polls by CNN and CBS gave Obama the edge -- some call it a draw, but few people beyond the walls of the Fox News studio are contending that Romney was the winner. Thus, the third and final debate on Monday is now teed up as a grand finale to a very long campaign. It should be a heavyweight political showdown with both men in top form -- two guys who do not seem especially fond of each other going for a knockout punch. 

Post-debate, there was some speculation among the talking heads on cable TV that female voters may have been turned off by too much testosterone on display. Women want to see congenial candidates commiserating over common ground and consensus solutions, it was said. Really? Where is the evidence of that? Obama was quite congenial -- almost deferential -- in debate No. 1 and he was seen by women, just like men, as a wimp who may not have the right stuff to be commander in chief.

What people say they want -- bipartisanship with no negativity -- is belied by how they vote. A forceful candidate who stands for something wins respect, and going on the attack usually is an effective tactic. That is because people who know what they believe want a leader to stand up for them and crush the other guy. It seems to be people who really do not have strong beliefs -- those callow ranks of undecided voters who seem desperate to find that one last snippet of information that might finally end their vacillation -- who object to the rough and tumble of politics.

The most dispiriting thing I saw on debate night was the MSNBC interview with a focus group of undecided voters. These people seemed to have no capacity for critical thinking and scant ability to discern fact from flimflam. 

One woman who said she now was leaning toward Romney said it was because he had a strong record as governor of Massachusetts and a five-point plan to fix the economy. Oh, really? Why did she believe Romney was a good governor? Well, Romney said it, so it must be true. And did she know any details about the five-point “plan” beyond Romney’s own brief talking points? How could she? There is no plan; it is mere aspiration.

This is a battle that is very likely to go down to the last hour of election day. I hope the victor is chosen by the legions of committed voters who know where they stand. I hope it is won by whichever campaign has the energy to get the most voters to the polls. I hope such a monumental choice does not come down to the vague, unsettled and uninformed gut feelings of the undecideds.

We need voters as tough and smart as the candidates.