The good news is that there was a presidential debate here on Long Island Tuesday night, and the president decided to show up. The fireworks produced by this second confrontation between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney were a far cry from their first, one-sided encounter. Overall, Romney did just as well as he did in the first debate, but this time he was facing a refocused Obama, who punched and counterpunched far more effectively.
While both sides, naturally, claimed victory for their champion in the post-debate spin cycle, the Obama forces had more to celebrate. In the three-round bout of presidential debates, their man couldn't afford to lose this one after having been so decisively trounced in the first encounter. He didn't disappoint them. The analysts' pre-debate debate was over how aggressive Obama would be, and we got our answer quickly. He came out on the attack and stayed on the attack. Meanwhile, Romney more than held his own in what was certainly one of the liveliest presidential debates of all time.
Neither candidate made a major gaffe; each tagged his opponent and both muffed opportunities. The president was better with the zingers, ridiculing Romney's five-point plan as a one-point plan -- with that point being taking care of the wealthy. When Romney countered Obama's charge of investments in China by asking him if he has looked at his own pension, the president remarked that Romney's is much larger than his own. Both laugh lines were designed to align Obama more closely with the middle class.
But when asked about women's issues, he somehow forgot to mention that both his Supreme Court nominees were women and, more important, how crucial the next picks to the high court could be for issues including reproductive rights and equal pay. As Obama fights to keep a lead among female voters, that was a missed opportunity so big you could drive a truck through it.
Romney was relentless in casting the last four years as a record of failure. His best answer came when he was asked how his policies would differ from those of former President George W. Bush, a fellow Republican. Romney skillfully turned the question into a positive characterization of himself as a deficit-cutting fiscal conservative and champion of small business.
As far as entertainment value, the debate was great theater. The bad news is that Long Islanders and the rest of the country didn't really get the answers they were looking for. Both candidates had correctly staked out the suburban middle class and small businesses as the battleground to be won. But in the heat of combat, it's easy to forget the battle plan. Obama and Romney both tried to stay on message, but in the end they eschewed substance for taglines and sound bites.
That's a shame, because some of the questions the undecided Long Islanders asked were better than the run-of-the-mill debate questions. When the president was asked pointedly whether he agreed with his energy secretary that it's not his department's policy to lower gas prices, Obama never directly answered the question. When asked about education, gun control and immigration, neither candidate gave much detail.
Obama was asked what he would do differently in the next four years. Romney was asked to delineate the exemptions he would eliminate to lower the tax rate. Their answers were essentially the same: "Trust me."
The contest for the White House is down to the battle for the undecided, moderate middle class. While putting on a great show in the heart of suburbia, neither candidate did much to win the hearts of those undecided voters.
Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.