Essentially a draw, but whom does it help?

Many of us expected to see a vastly improved Barack Obama in tonight’s debate, and that he would find his groove at around the mid-point between his laid back first performance and Joe Biden’s over-the-top performance art. As it turned out, Obama met, and probably exceeded, these expectations. He debated quite well, attacking Romney effectively, defending his record as well as he could, and presenting himself to the audience as empathetic and fully engaged.

Romney delivered a strong follow-up performance. He attacked Obama’s record mercilessly and defended himself as well he could to the extent Candy Crowley gave him the opportunity (and several times she didn’t). And he too seemed quite comfortable in interacting with the questioners.

Romney also gave a strong answer to one of the burning questions that independent voters surely are asking – how does he differentiate himself from President Bush. Romney responded mainly by referring to his now-familiar five point plan and showing that these mostly are things Bush didn’t try to do.

Obama responded by pointing out areas where Romney is to the right of Bush. This is a nice answer, but I think it misses the concern of independent voters. They want to know that Romney has new, sensible economic ideas, as opposed to the “failed ones that got us into this mess.” They are less concerned about Romney’s place on the ideological spectrum, especially as seen through the eyes of a none-too-popuular opponent.

As John says in his post about the debate, Romney muffed it on Libya to some degree. And it did not help that Crowley vouched for Obama’s false (or at a minimum highly misleading) claim about what he said in the Rose Garden about the attack on the day after. Presumably, Romney will come back to this on Monday.

In any case, Libya is a loser for Obama unless he launches a successful attack against those who killed our people. Obama’s answers tonight convince me that an attack is likely.

Who won? I think it was close, and would not argue with anyone who gives it one candidate or the other. Obama may have had a small edge in the weeds, in part because of the moderator, who gave him more time and (if I’m not mistaken) more follow-up opportunities. But I think Romney had the edge in the big picture debate on the economy.

The one poll I’ve heard about tends to confirm my impression. A CBS survey gave the debate to Obama by 37 percent to 30 percent. But the respondents found by almost a 2-1 majority that Romney won on the economy.

Who gains? It depends. If voters want to reelect Obama but need to be convinced that he can hold his own in a debate, then Obama will gain, just as George W. Bush did when he hung in there with John Kerry in the two encounters that followed Bush’s poor first debate performance.

But if, as may well be true, voters do not really want to reelect Obama, but need to be satisfied that Romney isn’t evil, isn’t Bush, and has workable ideas for the economy, then my guess is that the challenger’s performance tonight was another step on the road to “sealing the deal.”

As for Candy Crowley, she was even worse than I expected for reasons that should be clear from what I’ve written above. May this be her last appearance as a presidential or vice presidential debate moderator.

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