0 minutes. Both men mean business. They are out with smiles, mouthed “Thank You’s” and a perfunctory handshake. The American people have been subjected to political debates for more than a year. But this one is bigger than any other. Romney won the first decisively, and pulled ahead in many of the polls. Now, the rematch.
3 minutes. The town hall format means the first question goes to a college kid, who resembles a young Adam Sandler. He asks Romney about what will happen after graduation. Romney runs through the high points of his education record, and the low points of Obama’s economic record, then asks, “When do you graduate?” The Sandler-like kid says, “2014.” “When you come out in 2014, I presume I’m going to be president. I’m going to make sure you get a job,” says Romney. That’s good news for the kid.
5 minutes. Obama takes the question and pivots to what he never did in the first debate: Demonstrating that he wants the job of president for a second term. He even steals Romney’s move to do it, the Powerpoint list: Number one, number two, etc. Number one mentions Romney wanting Detroit to go bankrupt. That’s how it goes.
8 minutes. Romney clarifies that his desire to let Detroit go bankrupt was not as menacing as Obama makes it sound. “The president took Detroit bankrupt. You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did,” Romney says. He is right. The difference between the candidates is at what point in the process the government should have intervened, not whether bankruptcy was the proper course.
10 minutes. But this is the new Obama, the Obama on offense. So he doesn’t take that. “What Governor Romney said just isn’t true,” Obama says. “He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open. And we would have lost a million jobs.” The question being raised here is whether Romney still would have resisted government bailouts if it became clear, as Obama suggests, that the companies would have folded otherwise. But this is a presidential debate. So we don’t get there. Instead, Obama says of Romney, “He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.”
11 minutes. Obama gets a question about gas prices. He lists off his various energy planks. Then attacks Romney. “Governor Romney will say he’s got an all-of-the-above plan, but basically his plan is to let the oil companies write the energy policies,” he says. This allows Romney to lay into Obama’s energy record. “What we don’t need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas. This has not been Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal,” he says of Mr. Obama. Romney also hits Obama for a decline in permits for new federal drilling.
17 minutes. “Very little of what Governor Romney just said is true,” Obama says smiling. Here follows a squabble between the two men about just what Obama has done with federal drilling leases. At points, the two men are almost shouting over each other, looking at each other, just a few feet away. It’s full contact debate. The truth is that the drop in federal leases began under President George W. Bush, and continued after the moratorium in response to the gulf oil spill. But at moments like these, the theater overwhelms the facts. And what is clear is the change that has taken place in two weeks. In Denver, Obama was willing to defer. In New York, he has come to rumble. The President starts to eat into Romney’s time.
22 minutes. Romney starts appealing to moderator Candy Crowley of CNN for more time. “Candy, Candy,” he says. Then Obama tries to interrupt. Crowley regains control. Next question.
23 minutes. It’s about taxes. What loopholes in the tax code is Romney planning to eliminate? The mortgage interest deduction? The charitable giving credit? Romney says he would just set a ceiling on how much people can deduct. “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,” Romney says. He doesn’t say he is fixed on that number, which means voters won’t be able to calculate before they vote whether their individual taxes will go up or down under a Romney plan. Romney also says he will get rid of taxes on dividends, interest and capital gains for middle class people, which would be good for the middle class people who have extra money to invest.
27 minutes. Obama says that his tax plan is focused on cutting taxes for the middle class, while Romney is worried more about the rich. “That’s exactly the kind of top-down economics that is not going to work if we want a strong middle class and an economy that’s striving for everybody,” Obama says. “I’m not looking to cut taxes for wealthy people. I am looking to cut taxes for middle-income people,” Romney responds. “Settled?” asks Crowley.
31 minutes. “No, it’s not settled.” Obama criticizes Romney for not explaining how he’d simultaneously cut taxes, lower the deficit and increase military spending. The words come out fast and precise. Someone switched Obama’s Benadryl for Adderall. “If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend $7 or $8 trillion, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t take such a sketchy deal and neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up,” he says.
35 minutes. “Well of course they add up,” Romney responds. “I ran the Olympics and balanced the budget” as a governor. He got help from the federal government to do both those things, but never mind. “When we’re talking about math that doesn’t add up, how about $4 trillion of deficits over the last four years?”
37 minutes. New topic: What is each candidate doing to close the pay gap between men and women. It’s kind of a gimmee for Obama, who launches into his stump speech: Raised by a single working mom; grandmother got passed over for promotions at her bank job; first bill he signed in office made it easier for women to file equal pay suits. Romney tells a nice story too. When he first became governor of Massachusetts, all the recommended cabinet members were men, so he sent his team out to find “whole binders full of women” to hire. This didn’t really happen. Someone else compiled the list of women before Romney won office. But the binders were real. Next, Obama says a Romney presidency would be bad for women.
45 minutes. A tough one for Romney about how his policies would differ from George W. Bush’s. Romney thanks the questioner and then argues with Crowley about whether he was supposed to get a rebuttal to Obama’s last point. He wins enough time to say “the president’s statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong,” then answers the Bush question. Romney would be tougher on China’s trade practices and better about deficits. “President Bush and I are different people and these are different times,” Romney says. Fact check: True. Obama says Romney is more conservative than Bush on social issues and can’t be trusted on China because he invested in companies there.
51 minutes. A former Obama supporter asks what the President has done to deserve a second term. This is Obama’s big shot to defend his record, something he totally whiffed on last time around. Out comes the PowerPoint: taxes cut, Iraq exited, bin Laden killed. Obama explains health care reform in plain terms: “Insurance companies can’t jerk you around.” When he runs out of bullet points, he just lights into Romney some more. “I think you know better,” Romney responds, embarking on a misery tour of economic data from the last four years, some of it true. He says Obama predicted 5.4% unemployment by now—he didn’t, it was economists working for Obama’s transition team in 2008 before the depths of the recession were apparent—and blames the President for rising health care costs that were increasing before he took office. Obama tries to object, but we’re moving on to the next question.
59 minutes. “This is for Governor Romney?” Obama asks. “It’s for Governor Romney,” says Crowley. “Is it Loraina?” Romney asks the questioner. “Lorraine.” “Lorraine?” “Yes, Lorraine.” “Lorraine,” repeats Romney. “How you doing?” Lorraine asks. This isn’t her question. She wants to know what Romney would do about undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. “Thank you,” Romney says. “Lorraine? Did I get that right?” He did. Romney likes legal immigration–“this is a nation of immigrants,” he says–but he does not like illegal immigration and the President is to blame because he failed to pass comprehensive reform when Democrats controlled Congress. Now it’s Obama’s turn. “Lorranna,” he begins. “Lorraine. We are a nation of immigrants.” Obama says that he too loves immigration but Romney held up reform by calling a controversial Arizona law a “model for the nation.” In reality, Romney was only referring to one largely uncontroversial part of the law. Not democracy’s finest moment.
66 minutes. Romney remembers his rebuttal to that thing Obama said about Chinese investments 20 minutes ago and confronts the president at center stage. Romney’s money is in a blind trust and Obama’s pension invests in overseas companies too. “Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?” Romney says. “It’s not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long,” Obama fires back. “We’re way off topic here,” says Crowley.
70 minutes. A guy named Kerry Ladka says his buddies at a telecom supply company in Mineola were all talking about Libya the other day and wanted to know whether the Obama Administration denied additional security to the consulate in Benghazi where Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed on Sept. 11. The back story seems highly implausible, but at least neither candidate tries to say his name. Obama says he responded to the attack responsibly while Romney politicized it, which doesn’t really answer the question. But it’s a powerful exchange. “This calls into question the president’s whole policy in the Middle East,” Romney says. “The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime,” Obama says. “And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families. And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive.”
76 minutes. Romney thinks that he has caught the President telling a whopper. “You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror?” he says, grinning. “I want to make sure we get that for the record.” “Get the transcript,” Obama deadpans. Crowley back him up: “He did in fact, sir.” Romney looks like a guy whose steak dinner has sprouted legs and crawled off his plate.
77 minutes. The debate has pretty much entered stoppage time. “What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?” asks one voter. “We’re a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment,” Obama begins. He and Romney go on at some length, but neither has proposed new gun laws. The NRA guys watching at home pour themselves another scotch.
85 minutes. A question about outsourcing, scourge of the undecided voter. Obama and Romney have already used most of their economic talking points and China trade barbs so they both just cycle back through the list. Obama wants more education. Romney wants business-friendly taxes.
94 minutes. We’re well into overtime and Crowley brings our attention to the audience for the final question of the night. “I think this is a tough question,” the voter begins before lobbing a mushy softball up onto the stage. “What do you believe is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?” Romney goes first and explains, “I care about our kids,” and “I believe in God.” He also says that Obama’s efforts to paint him as out of touch aren’t fair. “I care about 100 percent of the American people. I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future.” Perceptive. Obama ignores the question entirely and goes after Romney on this exact front. “I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about. Folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives. Veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country.” He keeps going. Romney never gets a chance to respond. Only one more debate. We”ll see you Monday night.