President Barack Obama, widely panned for his last debate performance, could only have improved and did so Tuesday night at Hofstra. But challenger Mitt Romney continued to play offense, pounding away at the nation's economic problems and forcing Obama to point to signs of progress as an argument for a second term.
Wins and losses in debates are, of course, in the minds of the listeners. Some imagine them to be a version of "American Idol," where histrionics and performance are rated. Others use the model of sports events, like boxing matches. Predictably, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), amateur boxer, called Romney the winner on points, for example; just as predictably, Long Island-raised Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Florida), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee -- only feet away from King in the media spin room afterward -- said Obama won by relating to his audience.
The tactics, of course, will be examined by both campaigns, with the final debate slated for Monday in Boca Raton, Fla. Obama left his "47 percent" shot for last, the final comments of the 90 minutes, when Romney was in no position to answer them. "I believe Gov. Romney is a good man," said Obama. " . . . But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about."
Romney looked like he had his adrenaline going when he went after Obama on Libya, challenging him on how long it took for the administration to declare the attack on the United States consulate there a matter of terrorism. Obama ripped his Republican challenger for allegedly politicizing the matter while events were still developing, which the incumbent suggested was un-presidential.
The question came from Kerry Ladka, an official at Global Telecom Supply in Mineola, about the State Department having refused extra security for the embassy. Challenged on his comments in the aftermath, Obama referred Romney to transcripts of what he had said soon after the attack. Moderator Candy Crowley's intervening comment, suggesting that the president wasn't dissembling, was challenged by the Romney team and will be the subject of fact-checking stories Wednesday and going forward.
Later, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he felt for the president when he grieved for the slain embassy personnel. Cuomo said that while it is fair game for discussion, such matters shouldn't be "politicized."
Professor Carolyn Dudek, of Hofstra's political science faculty, said Obama overall started out and stayed strong throughout the debate, relating well to his audience. She said, however, that Romney maintained a strong showing. Polls and the final debate will determine any possible impact on undecided voters from their performances, she said.
The Nassau residents' questions seemed to run in varied directions, and covered enough terrain that voters in swing states such as Ohio, Florida and Virginia could relate as well. Touching on immigration, women's issues and jobs, the questions prompted the kind of complicated posturing that needs to be teased through and double-checked.
The body language was interesting. What did people think of seeing Obama moving away from Romney? Stepping forward? Interruptions of each other and rising and sitting down? Was it an exaggeration to call the event a "fight" given the standards of that word in this, New York State's traditional "confrontation belt?"
Local politicians, of course, hyped the university's role, with Sen. Charles Schumer saying Hofstra did such a good job last time "they decided to come back." Cuomo made similar remarks.
Unlike the first two debates before Tuesday night's -- the second having been between the vice-presidential contenders -- this session offered a transcript worth reading over, where the words and claims could be judged, divorced from the histrionics.