This time he punched back hard

With Obama regaining his footing in the second debate, he has got a new chance to frame the presidential race. Peter Baker writes.

india Updated: Oct 17, 2012 23:05 IST

He waited all of 45 seconds to make clear he came not just ready for a fight but ready to pick one.

US President Barack Obama, who concluded that he was "too polite" in his first debate with Mitt Romney, made sure no one would say that after their second. He interrupted, he scolded, he filibustered, he shook his head.

He tried to talk right over Romney, who tried to talk over him back. The president who waited patiently for his turn last time around forced his way into Romney's time this time. At one point, he squared off with Romney face to face, almost chest to chest, in the middle of the stage, as if they were roosters in a ring.

"What governor Romney said just isn't true."

For a president teetering on the edge of a single term, making a more forceful case at Hofstra University on Long Island on Tuesday night could hardly have been more imperative. Thirteen days after he took presidential decorum to a Xanax extreme, he tucked away a dinner of steak and potatoes and then went out on stage with plenty of red meat for anxious supporters.

Whether it will decisively reroute the course of the campaign remains to be seen, but the president emerged from the encounter having settled nerves within his panicky party and claiming a new chance to frame the race with just three weeks left.

Heading into the evening, the Obama camp said that he needed at least a draw to mute the commotion over the first debate and drain some of the potential drama from the final meeting next Monday. But the risk, of course, was that an acerbic confrontation could turn off the very swing voters he covets.

The strategy for Tuesday night was clear: undercut Romney's character and credibility by portraying him as lying about his true positions on issues like taxes and abortion. Time and again, Obama questioned whether the man on stage with him was the same "severely conservative" candidate who tacked right in the Republican primaries.

He painted Romney as a tool of big oil who is soft on China, hard on immigrants, politically crass on Libya and two-faced on guns and energy. He deployed many of the attack lines that went unused in Denver, going after Romney's business record, his personal income taxes and, in the debate's final minutes, his comments about the 47% of Americans he once deemed too dependent on government.

"Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan," Mr. Obama charged. "He has a one-point plan," which is to help the rich, he said. "Governor, you're the last person who's going to get tough on China."

And he pressed Romney for not disclosing how he would pay for his tax and deficit reduction goals. "We haven't heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood," he said.

Romney held his own and gave as good as he got, presenting Obama as a failed president who has piled on trillions of dollars of debt, left millions of Americans without work, bungled security for American personnel in Libya, done nothing to reform entitlement programs and deserted a middle class "crushed under the policies of a president who has not understood what it takes to get the economy working again."

But it was Obama who was the central story line of the night, his performance coming across as a striking contrast to that of his first face-off with Romney.

With each question that followed came another attack. When it was not his turn, Obama sat on a stool and looked at Romney as he talked, rather than staring down and taking notes as he did in Denver. There was little smirking, though he did project at times an air of tolerant dismissal.By the end, he had dominated the clock, consuming 44 minutes and four seconds to 40 minutes and 50 seconds for Romney.

If that sort of score keeping gave it the feel of an athletic competition, Obama might not object. Aides and friends have long said he is a clutch player on the basketball court, the kind who turns in listless performances during practice but raises his level when the game is on the line.

The game was on the line Tuesday night, and he scored some points. But the final buzzer is still 20 days away.

First Published: Oct 17, 2012 23:02 IST