In the Arena

The Hofstra Debate: No Clear Winner

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Michael Reynolds / Pool / REUTERS

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney shakes hands with President Barack Obama at the start of the second presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, Octo. 16, 2012.

I don’t know who “won” this debate. The President won on the substance. He was, obviously, far better–sharper, more energetic, more effective–than he was in the first debate. In the crucial first half-hour, he successfully hammered Romney on his baloney-laced tax plan; he mentioned that Romney wanted to cut funding for Planned Parenthood on at least 3 occasions, perhaps more, perhaps one too many; and demonstrated Romney’s inconsistency by pointing out that Romney, the great defender of fossil fuels, had once stood in front of a coal plant in Massachusetts and said “This plant kills” and shut it down. It was a strong performance by the President, capped by his stirring response to the question about the assault on the Libya consulate (and abetted by Candy Crowley’s apt fact-checking: Obama had indeed called it an “Act of Terror” on the day after the attack, in the Rose Garden). But Romney had some very strong moments as well–on crucial issues like the economy and the President’s record. He was a plausible candidate for President, especially for people who haven’t followed the meanderings of his policy positions–or his utter refusal to provide details–very closely.

(MORE: Obama Bounces Back With Strong Showing in Second Debate)

Most political debates are like this. There aren’t very many clean wins or losses. The candidates work on the audiences they’ve targeted–women for Obama; small business for Romney–and few minds are changed. The number of minds that are changeable at this point in this race is so miniscule that I can’t guess which candidate did better at influencing the truly undecided–which is why I can’t say who won. And I do think the bickering hurt both candidates, especially among women (and therefore may have hurt Obama more–although the President’s substantive answers on questions affecting women were much stronger than Romney’s).

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I’ll have a lot more to say about this event, and the state of the race, in my print column tomorrow. But one big thought is inescapable: Romney’s greatest weakness is that his proposals for the future are ridiculous. Obama’s greatest weakness is that his proposals for the future are nonexistent. And so, the question turns, as so often happens in presidential campaigns: which of these men do you want to have in your home for the next 4 years? Neither was particularly cuddly tonight.

For those of us who’ve followed this closely, Mitt Romney’s transformations–from Massachusetts liberal, to Tea Partyish Republican, to the current soft-edged moderate–are astonishing and brazen. They raise serious questions about his character and values. But for low-information voters, just tuning in–for people who just want a change after four tough years, as Americans are prone to do–he may have seemed a plausible alternative tonight.

MORE: Mark Halperin: Grading the Town Hall Debate