The Second Debate: A Draw, Which Means Obama Won

This is part of a continuing dialogue between Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson about the 2012 campaign.

The phrase that Democrats are using to describe what they characterize as President Barack Obama’s win in the second presidential debate is “stopped the bleeding.” If that’s the standard for victory, Margaret, then Obama met it. He was sufficiently aggressive, and got in enough hard shots at Mitt Romney, to quiet the liberals who had been asking whether the fight had gone out of the president.

Romney, it seemed to this conservative, missed opportunity after opportunity to hit back. He could have said that while contraception is widely available and will remain so whoever wins the election, as president he would not force employers to cover it -- but he only half-explained the issue. He did a fine job of explaining that Obama had distorted his position on saving Detroit, but left it unclear where he disagreed with Obama’s policy.

Romney had the makings of a decent point on Libya: The administration insisted for far too long that the attack was a spontaneous eruption in response to an offensive video rather than a terrorist plot, even though others were questioning this storyline. But Romney didn’t come off well in that exchange -- and his tactic of asking Obama questions didn’t work for him at any other point in the debate.

Obama missed a crucial opportunity too: to explain what his second term would be like, which he could have taken on any of the numerous occasions when Romney charged it would be as disappointing as his first. That seems to me like the missed opportunity on which Obama’s campaign is built.

I’d call this one a draw. If the first debate had looked like this one, Romney would still be trailing in the polls. But it didn’t, he isn’t, and I don’t think this one will put Obama back to where he was before the debates started.

The debate also left me with a question I’m still trying to answer: When’s the last time a presidential race featured two candidates who liked and respected each other? I’m sure you’ll agree, Margaret, that this one doesn’t count.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

(Margaret Carlson's response will appear tomorrow.)

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