Mitt Romney's strong performance in Wednesday's debate, together with President Barack Obama's diffident showing, has rebooted the race for the White House and raised the stakes sky high for their next meeting at Hofstra University.
Romney owned the night. He was aggressive, succinct and confident in seizing the offensive. In a format that allowed a rare, direct give-and-take between the candidates, Romney launched a blistering critique of Obama's record, a challenge that Obama never managed to deflect or effectively counter. That was probably enough to stop Romney's slide in the polls, which has characterized the race over the past few weeks, and maybe even enough to reverse it.
But Romney still left voters guessing about the specifics of his tax plan and what policies he wants to see replace "Obamacare" and the Dodd-Frank Act regulation of Wall Street. Challengers have more leeway than incumbents to broad-brush the details. But with the nation's economy still hobbled by the 2008 financial system collapse and subsequent recession, taxes, health care and regulation are too important for such vague, I'll-fill-in-the-details-later treatment.
Obama should have pushed Romney to reveal more. He failed on that score, and he also did a poor job of making the case for voters to stay the course he has set over the last four years. In football parlance, Obama opted for a prevent defense. Rather than playing to win, he appeared to be playing not to lose. That just made him appear lethargic and outgunned.
In many ways, this election presents a clear choice of direction for the country on the fundamental issue of the role of government in our lives. It needs to be an informed choice. That's why the debates are so important.
With campaigns increasingly driven by advertising, soundbites, tweets and spin, the extended, toe-to-toe discussion of issues that debates demand have made them the best opportunity voters have to hear a substantive exchange. Since 1960, when Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon met for the first televised debate in U.S. electoral history, they've become the centerpiece of presidential races.
Romney demonstrated just how consequential they can be. His campaign was off stride, slipping in the polls and under fire from fellow Republicans when he walked out on the stage at the University of Denver. Ninety minutes later his campaign was reenergized -- and so was the race for president.
The Oct. 16 debate at Hofstra will offer a different, but just as critical, opportunity for both candidates. Its town hall format is a great way to put voters at the center of this national discussion. That should broaden the range of issues discussed beyond the economy, deficits, health care and the role of government, which dominated Wednesday's event. And with one debate now under their belts, Obama and Romney should both be primed to provide more depth and detail.
With the battle for the White House focused on what's best for the middle class, it's fitting that the next round will be fought on Long Island, the quintessential middle class suburb.