17 October 2012 6:29 AM
A new, improved Barack Obama shows up for the second debate but fails to halt Mitt Romney's momentum
President Barack Obama needed a game-changing night here in Hampstead, New York and Mitt Romney made sure he didn't get it. Over the 90 minutes, Obama might have edged it - just - but strategically he did little if anything to blunt Romney's growing advantage.
Just as Al Gore over-compensated for his poor first debate in 2000, we saw a completely different Obama this time around. He had clearly had some intensive coaching from his debate prep team and was acting under orders to do change everything. Romney strategist Stuart Stevens quipped afterwards that he became 'Joe Biden without the charm'.
The problem is that the difference was so stark it was jarring. And by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Romney - we had tax rates, Bain, big bird and the 47 per cent - there was more than a whiff of desperation. While Obama flung mud, Romney was intent on dismantling Obama's record in office.
Romney was awkward on Benghazi, challenging Obama on whether he had described the attack as an 'act of terror' without being completely sure of his ground. And Obama got in a good retort when Romney suggested the president's pension contained foreign investments, shooting back: 'I don't 't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours.'
These were small, tactical victories for Obama though.
Although snap polls conducted by CNN gave Obama a win, the underlying numbers for him were bad - 58 to 40 per cent in Romney's favour on the economy, 49 to 46 per cent on health care, 51 to 44 per cent on taxes, 59 to 36 per cent on the deficit.
What matters in a presidential debate is not who is declared the victor on the night but how the two performances change the landscape of the race.
If this had been the first debate then Obama would in all likelihood not be in the perilous danger he now faces of being a one-term president. But it wasn't the first - it was effectively a do-over and one that will not erase the memory of a man in Denver who made no attempt to defend his record and was steamrollered by Romney.
While the Obama who turned up in New York was not the sleepy, disdainful professor we saw in Denver, Romney - apart from the odd bristle and tetchy quibble - was the same steady, relentless, fact-laden candidate who trounced that other Obama a fortnight ago.
The worst moment on the night for Romney was his not realising Obama had uses the words 'acts of terror' the day after the Benghazi attack. But in the bigger picture this is a losing issue for Obama - everyone knows he blamed the attack on a video and denied any terrorist group was involved.
At best, this is incompetence. At worst it is deliberately misleading the country. And Romney is sure to push this point home in the final debate in Boca Raton on Monday when parsing words will not be enough for Obama.
In New York, Romney was much the stronger on the economy - almost certainly the issue that will decide the election. The former Massachusetts governor came across as humane, competent and brimming with solutions and eagerness to turn the country around.
His most resonant lines were the simplest. 'Well, let's look at the president's policies, all right, as opposed to the rhetoric, because we've had four years of policies being played out,' he said at one point.
On the economy, he was crystal clear: 'He keeps saying, look, "I've created 5 million jobs". That's after losing 5 million jobs. The entire record is such that the unemployment has not been reduced in this country.
'The unemployment, the number of people who are still looking for work, is still 23 million Americans. There are more people in poverty - one out of six people in poverty.
'How about food stamps? When he took office, 32 million people were on food stamps; today 47 million people are on food stamps. How about the growth of the economy? It's growing more slowly this year than last year and more slowly last year than the year before.'
Obama had no response to this litany of economic woe that virtually every American has experienced personally in some way over the past four years.
That, in a nutshell, was Obama's biggest problem: despite the improvement in style, he still has neither an economic record he can defend nor a discernible plan for doing things better if American voters give him a second chance.