The two presidential candidates pull no punches.
Practice may not always make perfect, but it certainly put a burst of pep in President Obama's step as he and Republican Mitt Romney circled each other during their second face-off like Ali and Frazier, barely restraining their contempt. Democrats across the nation heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Gone was the Obama, who, two weeks ago, delivered a listless performance that helped propel Romney's upward trajectory in the polls. Within seconds he criticized the former Massachusetts governor for his opposition to the auto industry's federal bailout and ended the debate with a reminder of Romney's secretly taped comments about the "47 percent" of Americans who Romney said are overly reliant on government services.
"When he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about," Obama said.
In between, he repeatedly pointed to inconsistencies in Romney's positions as both a presidential candidate and governor and countered when he felt the Republican was misconstruing an administration policy.
Romney appeared less comfortable in the town hall setting and often on the defensive, but gave as good as he got, consistently hammering Obama on his economic record.
"And that record shows he just hasn't been able to cut the deficit, to put in place reforms for Medicare and Social Security to preserve them, to get us the rising incomes," Romney said.
Robert Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, said that Obama won the night in two ways, the most important of which was the vast improvement on his previous performance.
"He made his case against Romney and he did a pretty good job of making a case for what he'd do in a second term, largely contrasting that with Romney," Smith said. "Romney's strongest point was his constant reiteration of the state of the economy and slow economic growth."
The questions posed Tuesday night came from undecided voters who live in the New York area. One came from an African-American man who said he supported Obama in 2008, but wanted to know why he should support him again in 2012.
"It gave the president an opportunity to talk about his accomplishments and say that no, the economy isn't where we want it to be but it's better than what it was," said University of Louisville political scientist Dewey Clayton. But Smith did not feel it reflected the kind of question that the only Black person would have asked. He thinks a more representative question would have targeted African-Americans' double-digit unemployment rate and the feeling among some Black leaders that the president hasn't more forcefully addressed the problems of poor people or those trying to get into the middle class.
In a CBS News instant poll of undecided voters 37 percent said that Obama won the debate, 30 percent gave the advantage to Romney and 33 percent called it a tie. A similar poll two weeks ago gave Romney the lead by 46 to 22 percent.
A CNN poll of registered voters, decided and undecided, gave the debate to Obama by 46 to 39 percent, compared to Romney's larger margin after the first debate of 67 to 25 percent.
Clayton said Obama's performance Tuesday may have staunched the move by undecided voters in swing states to Romney.
"I'm not sure the polls will move that much more in Obama's direction but he did himself nothing but a good service tonight," Clayton said. "People saw the old Obama."
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(Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)