Barack Obama got shellacked in the first U.S. presidential debate

But he came out swinging this week in the second showdown with Mitt Romney

Eric Gay/AP

Martha Powers, a 56-year-old independent voter in the battleground state of Virginia—where polls show Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tied, each with just under half the vote—waited to hear the President speak at a campaign event in Fairfax County with a heavy heart. She’d voted for Obama in 2008, but was having trouble deciding whether to do it again. “He inherited a lot of awful stuff from Bush,” Powers said. “But I wish I could be a little more enthusiastic about him.”

It was a day after Obama’s disastrous debate in Denver gave Mitt Romney his first slim lead in some national polls since becoming the Republican nominee.

Democrats in the crowd were dispirited but philosophical, hoping their guy had just had a bad night. But undecided voters like Powers were straining to find words to express their reticence, grasping, it seemed, for what Obama had so far failed to provide them: something to vote for.

Four years ago, Powers said, she was “thrilled” to play a part in the historic election of America’s first black president. “It’s about time this country started ignoring colour.” But four years in, she feels “disappointed” with her choice. “Nothing big and wonderful has happened in these four years. The magnetism and the thrill is gone.”

And so the stakes for the second presidential debate on Tuesday night could not have been higher.

Obama had spent days hunkered down at a resort in Williamsburg, Va., preparing for the debate. And it showed when the two men squared off in Hempstead, N.Y. Perhaps he fed off the energy of a live town-hall crowd, or perhaps the gravity of his drop in the polls had focused his mind. Whatever the case, he was energized and up to the task of sparring with Romney. Indeed, at one point it looked as if the two men would resort to fisticuffs as they circled closer and closer to each other in a heated back-and-forth over drilling licences on federal lands.

Asked point blank by an audience member what tax deductions he would eliminate to pay for his planned 20 per cent cut to tax rates, Romney did not give a specific answer. Obama used the opening to land one of his sharpest rhetorical blows. “Now, Gov. Romney was a very successful investor. If somebody came to you, governor, with a plan that said, here; I want to spend $7 trillion 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 have taken such a sketchy deal. And neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.”

One voter said she was undecided because she was disappointed by Obama, but also feared that Romney would be a return to the policies of George W. Bush. To contrast himself with Bush, Romney talked about his energy plan, his plan to balance the budget, and his plan to crack down on Chinese trade practices. Obama seized the opportunity to make Romney out to be more extreme than the former president: “George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher,” he said.

Asked why requests for additional security for diplomats in Libya were denied by the State Department, Obama did not answer the question but said he took full responsibility. Meanwhile, Romney incredulously challenged Obama’s claim that he had called the event an “act of terror” the following day, only to be corrected by the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, who confirmed that Obama had indeed used those words.

The early reaction was that Obama had a better night than Romney. But it remained unclear whether his bounce-back from his catastrophic performance in the first debate would be enough to stop the Republican’s momentum.

Until his first faceoff with Romney, in Denver, the story of the election appeared to have been largely written. The race had been a dead heat all summer, with polls barely budging until the late-summer party conventions. Romney began a downward slide in public esteem with an ill-starred foreign trip where he was openly mocked by the mayor of London, and drew rebukes from Palestinians for comments blaming their poverty on culture. Romney got little lift from the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., perhaps best remembered for the sight of a creaky and cranky Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair. Meanwhile, Obama jumped ahead of Romney by four points after the Democrats’ gathering in Charlotte, N.C., where Bill Clinton stole the show by slicing and dicing Romney’s tax plan in his aw-shucks drawl, concluding that it didn’t pass basic “Arkansas arithmetic.”

And Romney, who had pitched himself as an economic Mr. Fix It, was looking incompetent, if not downright sinister—particularly after a secret video from a closed-door, $50,000-per-plate fundraiser surfaced in September. In his own words, the former CEO was saying that not only did he not care about the half the country who didn’t pay federal income taxes—he held them in contempt. By then, his campaign looked on the verge of disaster. “There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the President no matter what,” Romney said in the video. “There are 47 per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

Romney later said the comments were “just completely wrong,” but the damage had been done. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign was outspending Romney in swing states, running attack ads portraying him as a heartless and calculating vulture capitalist who destroyed communities and people’s lives for profit. Even conservatives were lashing out. In the Weekly Standard, conservative commentator William Kristol called the comments “stupid” and “arrogant.” “If you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party. Shut it down. Start new, with new people,” said conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham. On Sept. 19, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the Romney campaign was “incompetent.” “I was being polite,” she later added. “I really meant ‘rolling calamity.’ ”

So when Romney’s comeback arrived, it gobsmacked people in both parties. The President—perhaps complacent given his polling lead, out of touch, ensconced in a White House bubble or, as former vice-president Al Gore posited, simply light-headed from the Rocky Mountain altitude—was no match for Romney’s aggressive performance.

But it wasn’t just that Romney was crisp and focused where Obama was rambling and passionless. Romney also swerved so dramatically from the political right to the centre that Obama was left reeling. The President had come prepared to debate Gordon Gekko—the Mitt who disowned 47 per cent of the electorate. He found himself debating Mitt the Massachusetts Moderate. Romney, who had called himself “severely conservative” just a few months earlier, in the Republican primary contest, went back to sounding like the centrist, technocratic Massachusetts governor who’d once supported abortion rights and passed a health care reform package that later became a model for Obama’s.

In the Denver debate, Romney changed his tone—and his tune. While he had campaigned on repealing Obama’s health care law, he claimed in the debate that he’d keep parts of it after all. After mocking Obama in June for wanting to give federal dollars to states to hire more teachers and “more government workers” and declaring it was “time for us to cut back on government and help the American people,” Romney said the opposite in the debate. “I’m not going to cut education funding. I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers.” On the trail he had criticized government regulation as a “job-killer,” but in Denver, was suddenly singing its praises: “Regulation is essential,” he said. “You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation.” And on it went.

The Obama campaign was taken off guard, the President’s senior adviser and former White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, conceded last week. “Was I aware he was going to say, ‘I don’t have a $5-trillion tax plan, I don’t want to cut taxes for the wealthy? I love teachers, we ought to hire more’—all in contradiction to specific campaign platforms and statements that he has made in the past? I don’t think anybody expected that. I’m surprised,” Gibbs said on CNN’s State of the Union.

The Obama camp’s response was to call Romney a flip-flopper. At a rally in Virginia after the Denver debate, Obama joked that his opponent “got an extreme makeover.” But the zingers came a day too late, and they were simply not enough.

The problem was that Romney, who had been tarred a flip-flopper in the Republican primary and still won, had apparently taken away the lesson that if the public liked what he was selling, they didn’t seem to care what he had been selling before. His earlier critics were thrilled. Kristol called it the “best debate performance by a Republican presidential candidate in more than two decades.”

Political analysts had long predicted that Romney would pivot to the middle, the traditional move by candidates once they win their party primaries. But the choice of Paul Ryan as Romney’s vice-presidential running mate did not signal such a shift. The Wisconsin congressman was known for his conservative ideological fervour and a desire for large spending cuts that were included in the budget he crafted as the chairman of the House budget committee. Yet in his debate with Vice President Joe Biden, Ryan also struck a softer tone.

In his debate, Joe Biden tried a slightly different approach—imploring voters not to trust Romney, implying that he was hiding his true intentions. “Folks, follow your instincts on this one,” he said during an exchange over whether Romney and Ryan would cut Medicare benefits.

Obama’s debate performance on Tuesday was also largely aimed at denying Romney the political middle he so effectively seized in Denver. The President even brought up the 47 per cent comment. And Obama can take some comfort. While Denver allowed Romney to seize the momentum, the fundamentals of the election still favour the President. The economy is growing, albeit slowly. The stock market is up. The most recent jobs report was positive for Obama—a drop from 8.1 to 7.8 per cent unemployment. And Obama starts out with a structural advantage in the anachronistic electoral college system in which a handful of swing states play an outsized role in picking presidents. (Who can forget the importance of Florida in the 2000 election?) He already has a larger number of solidly Democratic electoral college votes than Romney has in his column. This means Romney needs to win a larger number of battleground states than Obama to rack up the 270 electoral college votes needed to win. Florida is leaning in Romney’s direction, but Obama maintains a lead in the critical state of Ohio. No Republican has ever won the White House without it. And if Obama can hold on to it, then Romney’s path is difficult indeed. As the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato wrote in his Crystal Ball analysis of the race: “Obama maintains more—and more plausible—routes to the 270 electoral college votes. The states Romney needs to flip are ones we still think favour Obama currently.” Those states include Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Which explains why both candidates have been lavishing so much time and money on Ohio. On Wednesday, Paul Ryan was in suburban Cleveland with former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Three days earlier, with her husband holed up practising for the debate, first lady Michelle Obama campaigned in Cleveland, making her signature pitch that mixes the personal (“He’s not just cute, he’s fine”) with the political: “While we still have a long way to go to completely rebuild our economy, there are more and more signs every day that we are headed in the right direction.”

But for all his sharp attacks on Romney in Tuesday night’s debate, Obama spent little time explaining the details of how he would balance the budget or sketching out new plans for his second term. Touting his record in averting another Great Depression may be enough for some voters, but perhaps not for all those who could decide a close election. “People like me,” said Martha Powers, the undecided voter in Virginia, “need a reason to go out and vote.”