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Romney down but not out

President Barack Obama had one thing going for him when he started this week's United States presidential debate: he could not be any worse than the last time. His Republican contender Mitt Romney had one drawback: he apparently could not be any better.

As it turned out, Obama was much better. Clearer, sharper, more decisive and passionate, he challenged Romney on the facts and rhetorically overwhelmed him. It was a rout every bit as conclusive as the first debate, only this time the victor was Obama. Last time he barely showed up; on Tuesday night he showed Romney up.

Self-assured without being too cocky, focused without being too wonkish, he managed to strike the right balance between being firm with Romney and empathetic with the questioners. Little of what he said was different in substance, but there was a great deal of difference in the way he said it.

He had the best lines of the night. When taking on his challenger over his shift from supporting a ban on assault weapons as governor of Massachusetts to opposing them as a presidential candidate, Obama said: "He was for an assault weapons ban before he was against it."

When Romney pushed him on investments in his pension funds, asking whether he had seen his pension recently, Obama responded: "I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long."

Terrorist attack
When the moderator, Candy Crowley, corrected Romney after he suggested that Obama did not call the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi a "terrorist attack", Obama shouted with a smile: "Say it louder, Candy."

Romney did put up a fight. Approaching the debate with the same style as he did in Denver, he brought his best self. Probably his best line came in an answer about why, given the hard times of Obama's first term, he should be trusted with a second. "We just can't afford another four years like the last four years," said Romney.

It is difficult to equate the stiff and impersonal figure of the conventions with the man who showed up on the night. But it simply was not enough. Indeed, if anything, it was too much. For in his effort to reassert the control he enjoyed during the first debate he overreached. Where he once appeared animated he now came off as aggressive. His interruptions looked ­desperate and his interjections were shrill. In the two weeks since his ­triumph in Denver, he went from persuasive to petulant.

The other loser on Tuesday night was US politics. Two men circling, talking over each other, drawing on different facts and calling each other liars looked like a metaphor for much that has gone wrong in American political culture over the past generation. It was a town hall-style meeting, which is supposed to be less confrontational. But more caustic than consensual, this was a bad-tempered affair.

Obama's performance will energise his base and shore up the doubts of those shaken by his earlier drubbing. It will staunch the bleeding of support towards Romney, but it is unlikely to reverse the flow.

They called it a town hall meeting. But in truth there are very few towns like it. It was a room full of undecided voters: the nation is not. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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