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First Thoughts: Obama fights back

Obama fights back and body language tells us who the winner was… Issue terrain matters… Libya rattles Romney… They really, really don’t like each other… The crucial question: Were the past two weeks about Romney getting a second look, or were they about voters being disappointed in Obama?... On to the final debate in Boca… Obama stumps in Iowa and Ohio, while Romney hits Virginia.

Barack Obama looked energized at the second presidential debate, but GOP candidate Mitt Romney mostly stayed with him as the two confronted one another over issues involving immigration, foreign policy, the economy and more. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

HEMPSTEAD, NY -- If former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney controlled the terms of the debate two weeks ago in Denver, the opposite was true here last night. It was President Obama on offense for much of the night, and it was Romney playing defense. The overall outcome at Hofstra University wasn't as one-sided or decisive as it was two weeks ago. Indeed, the GOP presidential nominee was strong on the economy and litigating Obama's four years in office, and he brought plenty of energy. But just like we saw in Denver, the body language told the real story: You had Republicans, not Democrats, complaining about the moderator; there was the Romney campaign saying afterward, “What we really meant to say was XYZ”; and you saw Obama lingering with the crowd after the debate (when it was Romney who did that two weeks ago). Also, unlike Obama’s performance in Denver, there were some uncomfortable moments for Romney (the exchange on Libya, “binders full of women,” Obama’s my-pension-isn’t-as-big-as-yours line) that have the potential to be problematic for his campaign over the next couple of days.


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama talk over each other as they answer questions during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York.

*** Issue terrain matters: If we learned anything last night, as well as in Denver, it’s that the issue terrain matters. While the first two questions last night -- on a young college student’s job prospects and on gas prices -- were right up Romney’s alley, many more of the following questions were tailor-made for Obama. Pay equality for women. Immigration. George W. Bush. And Obama used those questions, which didn’t surface two weeks ago, to draw his sharpest contrasts with Romney. In fact, a good chunk of the debate was an exercise in micro-targeting, particularly for the president. You saw both Obama and Romney making their pitches to female voters and Latinos, who happen to be two of the most important demographic groups in this election. Yesterday, we wrote that the town-hall debate was an opportunity for Romney to make more inroads with female voters, especially those in the suburbs. Our question: Did a debate that shined a spotlight on the Lilly Ledbetter Act, abortion, and contraception end up helping Romney with women? 

*** Libya rattles Romney: Perhaps the sharpest exchange of the night was over Libya, a topic that has dogged the Obama administration over the past few weeks. Obama said, “The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror.” Romney later interjected, “I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.” Obama fired back, “Get the transcript.” Well, here is the transcript -- and here’s what Obama said in that Rose Garden speech: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” Now Romney would have been on safer ground if he charged that Obama didn’t call it a coordinated terrorist attack by al Qaeda-affiliated elements, and the Romney spinners after the debate made that point. But Romney used a different term -- “act of terror” -- and Obama DID SAY that. And afterward, Romney appeared rattled after he allowed himself to get caught up on the losing end of a semantic argument. Romney was not the same candidate after that moment. 

Reuters, Getty Images

In the final push in the 2012 presidential election, candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama make their last appeals to voters.

*** They really, really don’t like each other: In fact, almost all of the exchanges drove this point home: These candidates really don’t like each other. The two men constantly interrupted each other; they circled each other like prizefighters in the boxing ring; and they also even got into each other’s faces. Overall, last night showed that both Obama and Romney are fighters, but they also demonstrated the worst stereotype of why so many people hate politics. It is also worth asking if a debate that featured two VERY alpha-male performances end up turning off swing voting women who would prefer a tad more comity in their politics and less cable-TV/talk radio style bravado. And where was the empathy? From the get-go, it was clear neither candidate knew how to connect with the questioners very well. Take the young man in college who asked the first question. Do you realize neither candidate asked him what he WANTED as a career in after college? WWBCD -- What Would Bill Clinton Do?

*** The crucial question: So will last night’s debate change the contours of the presidential race and slow Romney’s momentum? The answer comes down to this: Have the past two weeks been about Romney getting a second look from voters and seeing a different Romney than has been portrayed over the past year? Or have the past two weeks been about Democrats and swing voters being disappointed in Obama’s first debate performance? If it’s the former, you could argue that the debate didn’t change too much in the race. If it’s the latter, you could argue that it did. Once again, we’ll be paying attention to the polls that come out next week. If the race is a grind-it-out affair, here’s where David Plouffe said things stand, per NBC’s Jamie Novogrod: “We believe that we remain in very strong position in Ohio, in Iowa, in Nevada, in New Hampshire.” The Romney folks aren’t giving up Ohio, but also have Plan Bs on winning Wisconsin and Iowa. The fact is Wisconsin/Iowa combined with Ohio puts Obama over the top. For Romney, he needs three of these four if he doesn’t win Ohio: Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada.

*** On to the final debate: And also next week, on Monday, we’ll have the final presidential debate -- from Boca Raton, FL. And this is a potential problem for Romney. Why? Because it won’t be a conversation about jobs and the economy (where even one instapoll showed Romney winning, even if he lost the entire debate). Instead, it’s a showdown on foreign policy. As conservative pundit Laura Ingraham tweeted last night, “TERRIBLE miscalculation for GOP to agree that final debate wd be on foreign policy. Whose bright idea was THIS when jobs/economy #1 issue?” As we saw last night in the Libya exchange, it is very difficult for a challenger to best an incumbent president on foreign policy. The good news for Romney is that expectations will be low. The bad news is that -- if issue terrain matters -- it’s a foreign-policy debate. 

*** On the trail: Obama stumps in Mount Vernon, IA at 12:45 pm ET and in Athens, OH at 6:00 pm ET… Romney hits Chesapeake, VA at 1:15 pm ET and Leesburg, VA at 7:05 pm ET… Biden campaigns in Greeley, CO at 1:00 pm ET and Reno, NV at 7:45 pm ET… And Ryan visits Berea, OH at 11:30 am ET.

Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 5 days
Countdown to Election Day: 20 days

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