HEMPSTEAD, NY — Mitt Romney was ready for President Obama to come out swinging after his barely-there performance in the last debate.
He wasn’t ready enough.
A focused and combative Obama kept Romney on the defensive from early on, accusing him of rigging his policies to favor the rich, trying to hide his conservative positions, and above all not telling the truth. Over and over, Obama responded to Romney’s answers with the same refrain: “It’s not true.”
Romney surrogates acknowledged the shift, suggesting the contest was a narrower Romney victory, but that Obama favored “style” over “substance.”
“I think [Romney] did very well because it’s not a style election,” Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) told TPM.
“I think on style the president clearly brought a more enthusiastic performance, but … at the end of the day the substance is what’s really going to make a difference,” RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said.
John Sununu called it an “even grade” for both debaters, saying the town hall style format made it harder for either to break out.
It was the mirror image of Obama’s supporters two weeks ago, who used the same “style v. substance” talking point over and over again in the hours after the first debate.
That wasn’t the line this time. Obama “won overwhelmingly,” according to Obama’s debate sparring partner, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). “I think tonight Mitt Romney’s campaign fell away,” Kerry said, adding the president showed he has “a mission, a vision, and facts.”
While Romney held his own for most of the debate, he stumbled badly discussing Libya, an issue where the White House is facing criticism for its security decisions and intelligence gathering. The result was the most memorable moment of either debate.
It began after Obama told a questioner that he reacted to the Libya attack by calling it an “act of terror” and pledging a full investigation the very next morning, which he contrasted with Romney’s “offensive” political maneuvering the same day.
Romney responded awkwardly, apparently confused over whether the Obama speech had happened as described and repeatedly prodding him to clarify.
“I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” Romney said.
“Get the transcript,” the bemused president replied.
That was enough for moderator Candy Crowley, who interrupted to note that Romney was wrong: “He did in fact, sir,” Crowley said. “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” the president chimed in as the audience applauded.
As it turned out, Obama and Crowley were right. From Obama’s Rose Garden speech: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
Romney surrogates grumbled after the debate that Crowley’s claim was inaccurate, noting that the administration still confused the cause of the attacks for days afterwards, often connecting it to an anti-Muslim film. The government now acknowledges that the attack was pre-planned and unrelated (Crowley actually noted Romney was correct on this point during the debate).
“[Obama] said terror will not dissuade us, he did not say it was an act of terrorism,” Sununu told TPM.
On domestic politics, Obama set out from the start to portray Romney more explicitly as a wealthy man out to help wealthy people.
“Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan, he has one-point plan,” Obama said. “And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.”
He also finally referenced Romney’s “47 percent” moment, saying Romney’s comments derided “folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives, veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country, students who are out there trying to, hopefully, advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams, soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now, people who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income.”
Romney said that “I care about 100% of the American people.”
In another change from the first debate, Obama brought up immigration and social issues often, regardless of the question, trying to tie Romney to some of his more conservative primary positions.
“His main strategy during the Republican primary was to say, we’re going to encourage self-deportation, making life so miserable on folks that they’ll leave,” he said. Romney countered that Obama had not passed a comprehensive immigration bill, despite promising in 2008 to make it a top priority.
Taking a question on equal pay, Obama noted that Romney had refused to offer up a clear position on whether he supports the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill the president signed after taking office.
Romney responded on a personal note, describing how he overrode his staff’s cabinet recommendations upon taking office in order to include more women in his cabinet.
“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And I brought us whole binders full of women,” Romney said.
The Republican nominee did have some solid answers of his own on the economy, often returning to the same themes he hit in his first debate in which he urged Americans to hold Obama accountable for persistent unemployment.
“The president has tried, but his policies haven’t worked,” Romney said. “He’s great as a a speaker and describing his plans and his vision — that’s wonderful, except we have a record to look at.”
In the end, though, Obama went in desperately needing a solid win, still smarting badly in the polls after Romney soundly trounced him in their first meeting. Whether his performance was enough to move the polls back into a solid lead, nobody knows, but there’s no doubt his supporters are leaving feeling a lot better about his chances.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.