Tuesday night's debate at Hofstra University on Long Island was a far cry from the October 3 Romneyfest that has had the Obama camp wringing its hands in despair over the last two weeks. Suffice it to say that David Axelrod's combover looked a little more suave tonight in his post-debate interview on MSNBC, and he surely slept easier knowing that Obama delivered a performance that was on par with Romney's - and included a few zingers too.
Candy Crowley likely also rested easy after successfully being the first female moderator of a presidential debate in 20 years — not a simple task for any man, woman, undecided, etc., given the candidates' refusal to act in accordance to the town hall debate style rules. Though they were not supposed to address each other, Obama and Romney frequently interrupted, questioned, and sassed each other, with Romney setting the tone early, telling an agitated Obama who had risen from his seat, "You'll get a chance to talk in a minute."
Reactions and speculations as to who actually came out as the "winner" of the debate will abound in the coming days, and already pundits on both sides are declaring clear winners. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC said Obama came out on top and tonight was the "best debate of Barack Obama's career as a national politician" in her post-debate breakdown, and Governor Bob McDonnell (R) of Virginia, interviewed on Fox just after the debate, said that tonight's head-to-head made it clear that there is "no compelling case for a second Obama term."
I'm not here to adjudicate, or to stack up "points" (or fouls, or stolen bases), but one thing is for sure - Obama supporters are going to feel better after witnessing a triumphant rebound from his shockingly lackluster performance two weeks ago. At the same time, however, Romney held his ground and delivered a performance consistent with his first, and it is difficult to tell who will gain ground over the following weeks in this race that has literally become neck-and-neck in the polls, with Real Clear Politics showing Romney has a national average lead of only 0.4 points as of yesterday.
Just following the debate, CNN released speaking time figures indicating that Obama had 44 minutes and four seconds of speaking time, while Romney had 40 minutes and 50 seconds. While #40:50 instantly (albeit briefly) trended on Twitter, again these kind of measurements and "point" systems inevitably have little bearing on the election results. Four minutes, after all, is not a lot of time.
What will carry some weight over the next few days are the standout lines and zingers, delivered by both candidates, that did not fall within the expected, hardline responses that the majority of the ten questions (posed by members of the audience) prompted. We knew Romney was going to say that his tax plan will benefit the middle class and small business, that he will play tough with China, and that his experience shows he knows how to create jobs for the American people. We knew Obama was going to say that Romney's tax and economic policies cater to the wealthy, that he has focused and will continue to focus on homegrown sources of energy, and that education and gender equality are essential to a robust economy.
It's the other stuff, the stuff that perhaps wasn't quite so scripted, that will stick in viewers' minds over the next few days and weeks. These moments are what gain momentum on the news and the web and are the talking points that populate headlines and water cooler conversations. Indeed, nearly every post-debate report on television went straight to a discussion of Romney's accusation that Obama failed to declare the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya as a terrorist attack, only to have Obama and Crowley tell him he was wrong (in fact, Obama called it an "act of terror" the very next day). MSNBC called this a "gotcha moment" for Obama, while Fox correspondents were aghast at Crowley's jumping in and argued that Obama's calling it an "act of terror" was not the same as calling it a "terrorist attack" as Romney had.
There's also this tumblr, created right after Romney — discussing his history of ensuring gender equality in the workplace — mentioned that while searching for women to balance out his gubernatorial cabinet he had "binders full of women" to recruit. Yes, the tumblr is hilarious, but that is simply because it is highlighting how ridiculously awkward Romney's phrasing was, not because Romney said something wantonly sexist. He actually did have the most women in his cabinet than any other governor at the time — maybe the Trapper Keeper helped!
In the end, perhaps this spat-worthy, meme-worthy stuff won't carry too much weight, and perhaps they shouldn't. Romney's point on Benghazi was by far the gaffe-iest, if you will, moment of the debate, and perhaps the news media will be over it by Thursday. And, all told, the binders full of women tumblr won't get viewed by many non-millennials. The buzzy, trendy stuff that tends to get a lot of hype in the minutes and days following debates usually are not of much substance, or at least heavy substance. I, for one, hope that voters are not swayed by this, as perfect as it is.
So what are we left with? A pretty damn solid debate from both guys, and a pretty damn close race. It'll be interesting to see how the conversation unfolds and how the polls read over the next few weeks, but to be sure, the pressure will be on in the final debate.