Obama won. The president was everything he wasn't in the last debate – self assured, clear, passionate. But it almost didn't matter. Mitt Romney beat himself.
He seemed discombobulated. Even before Romney was badly shaken by a botched foreign policy answer, he delivered a baffling explanation of his tax plan. And he ended the debate by setting himself up for a critique of his secretly recorded claim that 47 percent of Americans are reliant on the government.
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Many cheap remarks have been made about Romney's shifting skin tones, particularly after his deeply tanned appearance before a Univision audience. I'm sorry to add to the discussion, but people are shallow and appearances matter. So I'll say it: Romney looked waxy under the lights. His makeup crew did him wrong this time, after he looked great at the first debate. Any resemblance to wax figurines is never good for politicians, especially when so many people already think they're fake.
But the appearance was appropriate. Because Romney had several meltdowns.
He seemed simultaneously petty and ineffective when he harangued moderator Candy Crowley for more time to speak – and yet somehow still got three minutes less than Barack Obama, according to CNN's clock.
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Obama also pushed for time. But he cleverly stressed again and again how much he wanted to help Crowley stay on schedule, even when he went off it. At one point he went over his time by simply explaining that what he had to say was important.
You can do that?
The town hall format no doubt helped Obama, because voters usually rate him more relatable than they do Romney. Obama rather shamelessly exploited that at one point, when Romney asked him if he ever looked at his pension.
"It's not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long," Obama cracked, referring to his opponents' vast wealth.
Romney's spats with Crowley were ill-timed in a debate in which both candidates wanted desperately to seem respectful to female voters. Romney has made significant gains with them since the last debate. But I'm betting a few undecideds will be creeped out by Romney talking at one point about "binders full of women." (Las Vegas cab drivers have those, too, but they try to be subtle about it.) Romney used the phrase while talking about his efforts to recruit female employees as Massachusetts governor. But it was immediately dragged out of context on Twitter.
Romney's messy play for female voters wasn't as bad as his handing of a question about the Benghazi, Libya, attacks that killed a U.S. ambassador and three others. He came off looking unpresidential and shaken.
Romney has blamed Obama's administration for failing to protect Americans, and Obama acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that the buck stopped with him. But he also delivered a passionate, solemn speech about going to meet the caskets of the dead, and suggested his opponent was playing politics. He also said any suggestion that his team was doing the same was "offensive."
Romney stuttered and stammered in response. Obama has already accused Romney of shooting first and aiming later by criticizing his administration before the facts were in. But Romney misfired again. He disputed the president's claim that Obama called the Benghazi attacks an "act of terror" the day after they occurred.
"Check the transcript," said Obama.
Crowley agreed with the president, saying that in fact he had called the attacks terrorism during remarks in the Rose Garden the following day.
"Can you say that a little louder, Candy?" asked Obama, milking the moment.
I checked the transcript. What Obama said on Sept. 12 – the day after the attacks — was that "no acts of terror" would shake America's resolve. That leaves Republicans wiggle room to say Obama was talking about terrorism in general.
But that didn't help Romney onstage. He looked like he didn't know what he was talking about. (I'm going to bet most people watching at home won't fact-check too closely, and that even if they do, many will agree with Obama and Crowley's interpretation.)
The debate was its most tense as the candidates squared off over energy policy, walking closer and closer to each other until returning to their corners. But then Obama jabbed Romney, who now sells himself a defender of coal jobs, by pointing out that as governor of Massachusetts, he said a coal plant in the state was killing people.
On Twitter, Obama supporter Paul Begala helpfully linked to a video of the 2003 remarks, which are below. (Story continues after the video.)
Romney also helped Obama finally land a point he struggled to make in the last debate: That Romney's tax plan doesn't add up.
Last time, Obama insisted again and again that Romney wanted $5 billion in tax rebates. Romney denied it. This time, Obama compellingly argued that Romney still wants it, as well as an increase in military spending.
"We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood in terms of how he pays for that," Obama said, pointing out two issues dear to his liberal base while hitting Romney for being vague.
Obama has failed to force Romney to go into detail about how he proposes to cut taxes while balancing the budget. Tuesday, night, it took one of those regular people in the audience to do it. She ticked off existing tax deductions, wondering what would become of them, and struggled to remember the name of one.
"You're doing great," Obama said, delighted that someone – a real person, no less — was finally pushing for specifics.
Finally Romney responded.
"Middle-income people are going to get a tax break," he said. "And so, in terms of bringing down deductions, one way of doing that would be say everybody gets — I'll pick a number — $25,000 of deductions and credits, and you can decide which ones to use. Your home mortgage interest deduction, charity, child tax credit, and so forth, you can use those as part of filling that bucket, if you will, of deductions."
Wait, what? Was he plucking $25,000 out of the air? And why would everyone in the middle class get the same deductions and credits, which aren't the same thing? And why would I get the same $25,000 whether I have a home or a child or not? Why not skip the whole "reasons for specific deductions" thing and just give everyone $25,000 dollars, in deductions and credits, which, again, are very different.
Am I the only taxpayer who's a bit confused? You can read it the rest of what Romney said here – but he lost me at $25,000.
He had a few mistakes left to make. In a question about gun control, Romeny said having two parents at home would prevent young people from committing gun violence. He also praised single mothers and fathers, without mentioning same-sex partners.
It seemed like a tactical omission, and an attempt to appeal to conservatives. But it also felt like a point shoehorned in to an unrelated question as the clock ticked down to its last minutes.
And then there was his mess of a closing statement. Somehow he had almost made it through his second debate with Obama without either of them mentioning his "47 percent" soliloquy. And then he reminded us of it, saying he cared about "100 percent of the American people."
That was Obama's cue to mention the 47 percent, which of course he did.
Here's hoping the Romney from the first debate and the Obama from the second one show up next week, for the final debate. Then we might finally get a real fight.