(Left) Romney and Obama’s hands during the second presidential debate in Hempstead, New York. (AFP)
Manchester (Connecticut), Oct. 17: America’s presidential election is by no means over. Barack Obama’s willingness to repeatedly call Mitt Romney a liar without ever using the four-letter word during their second debate in Long Island ensured that the close contest for the White House on November 6 will be fought on scorched earth to the bitter end.
At a “debate party” in this small town just 10 minutes away from America’s insurance capital of Hartford, where I watched the encounter between the President and his challenger, Democrats, who dominate Manchester, leapt up from their seats and deliriously raised their glasses when Obama said this of Romney’s description of a controversial White House bailout of the US automobile industry three and a half years ago.
“What Governor Romney said just isn’t true,” Obama responded. Put plainly, the President was telling the Republican that he is a liar, but the response was so inoffensively worded that Republicans could not complain.
Just over 15 minutes had elapsed of the 90 minutes allotted for their second face off and it was clear that Obama, who was confronting Romney at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, last night, was a very different person from the one Romney debated in Denver a fortnight ago.
Then Obama said it again and again and again. In different words, but the message was the same, that Romney is a liar who can’t be trusted with the keys to the White House. The President had refused in Denver to call Romney out on his liberties with the truth to the bitter disappointment of his supporters.
That refusal nearly cost Obama his re-election. He is not out of the woods yet, but a willingness that Obama displayed last night to fight for his prize has made him competitive once again in three states which are essentially expected to decide the next presidency: Ohio, Florida and Virginia, in that order.
Among them, these three states have 60 votes in the electoral college, where 270 seats constitute the threshold of victory. In the event that the verdict from these states are split, there are six others which will then decide who occupies the White House next: Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin, which collectively account for 50 electoral votes.
A snap poll by CNN of debate-watchers last night had Obama winning the second debate by 7 points, 46 to 39 per cent. However, when respondents were asked who they were likely to vote for, the verdict was tied at 25 per cent for each candidate.
Obama’s improved performance last night is, however, unlikely to diminish Republican enthusiasm for Romney unlike the impact of the first debate on Democrats. Although Obama won overall last night in the CNN poll, Romney was streets ahead on several issues.
On the critical subject of who would do a better job of handling the economy, 58 per cent of respondents favoured Romney with only 40 per cent for Obama. On taxes too Romney was favoured by 51 per cent of respondents against 44 per cent for Obama.
Such results encourage Republicans to conclude that their man can win and so the party’s effort will be to ensure a largescale turnout of voters. In this effort, Democrats are at a disadvantage because sections of their supporters who looked up to Obama’s message of change in 2008 are largely disillusioned.
To Obama’s advantage, however, 47 per cent of those polled found him more “likeable” compared to 41 per cent in this category for Romney. Similarly, 44 per cent of respondents felt Obama cared more for “your” life while only 40 per cent thought so about Romney.
These are categories in which Obama has consistently led his challenger and may persuade a majority of Americans on polling day to cast their lot with the incumbent for another four years.
“Truth” was such an issue on the debate floor last night that at one point the moderator, Candy Crowley, had to step in and correct Romney’s record of misrepresenting the President on facts. The issue was Libya, where the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the murder of Obama’s ambassador on September 11 has become a liability for the administration.
Obama insisted that he had described the events in Benghazi as “acts of terror” the day after the attack, a fact which Romney was misrepresenting. The exchange between them became testy with Obama asking his challenger to look at the White House transcript until Crowley supported the President’s version of his position in order that they could move on to another question.
A moment when the unthinkable happened on the debate floor was when Obama backhandedly praised George W. Bush — whose name has been sort of taboo for Republicans this election season — as less extreme than Romney.
The occasion arose when a member of the audience asked Romney how he was any different from the 43rd President who used to be a lightning rod for many Americans during his White House tenure from 2001 to 2009.
The question clearly made Romney discomfited: his campaign had made sure that Bush did not attend the Republican National Convention and Bush’s name or record had been erased by the campaign during the primaries or the rest of the election season.
When Bush visited Romney’s campaign headquarters in Boston recently, Romney stayed away and his campaign initially went so far as to deny that the 43rd President was there at all. But Obama made the most of the opportunity last night to refer to America’s most unpopular leader by declaring that Romney could be worse than Bush as President.
Perhaps, in political terms, that was the worst thing any Democrat could say about the President’s Republican challenger.