David Zurawik

A more aggressive Obama makes for a most intense, contentious debate

President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) during the second presidential debate in Hempstead, New York Tuesday.

President Barack Obama came out swinging Tuesday night in the  town hall debate with Mitt Romney, and while he didn't land any pure knockdown punches, his base is sure to be encouraged by seeing a a president on TV who once again seemed engaged in the fight to hold the White House.

What a difference between this Obama and the distracted, somnambulant character viewers saw in his first debate with a dominant Romney. The Democratic president on the screen Tuesday night at Hofstra University seemed like someone who gave a darn -- at least about some of the troubles this nation is experiencing in these hard times.

The one moment that best encapsulated several of the major story lines of this debate came when one of the undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization to be onstage asked Obama, "Who denied enhanced security for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and why?"

The decision on which voters would be allowed to ask their questions had been made earlier in the day by moderator Candy Crowley. This was the question GOP supporters had been waiting for days to hear -- and the one Democrats had been maneuvering to minimize in terms of potential damage to the president. Many analysts thought the Monday statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying she takes full responsibility for what happened in Libya was made on the eve of the debate to try and take some of the heat off the president Tuesday night.

But Obama simply ignored the direct question, and instead talked about how he deeply felt the loss in Libya. He talked about being "the one who greets those coffins when they come home," and in doing so, sounded caring. With those words, he also reminded viewers of his status as commander-in-chief.

A wise move by Romney would have been to follow by expressing his own feelings about the loss of American life, and then making it clear that Obama had dodged the voter's question. Romney should have  asked Obama to please answer it. That would have both highlighted Obama's failure to give a direct answer many Americans are waiting to hear -- and made Romney seem like an advocate for the voter asking the question.

But instead, Romney went too hard at the president. The GOP challenger said that on the day after the Benghazi attack, Obama was in Las Vegas raising campaign money while his administration was misleading the American public about what caused the attack. Instead of an act of terrorism tied to the anniversary of 9/11 that we now know it to be, Romney said the administration was describing the attack as part of a spontaneous demonstration in response to an American-made film.

Obama quickly countered by saying that he did describe the attack as an "act of terrorism" -- and he did that only one day after the attack in a Rose Garden session before heading off to Las Vegas.

When Romney challenged that, Obama said, "Check the transcript." 

And then, Crowley weighed in with a quick fact-check saying Obama did in fact call it an act of terrorism on that next day.

Romney looked flabbergasted for a second or two, and didn't know what to say. He later regained his composure, but he was never really on the offensive again.

In the highly partisan media world of today, some conservatives are surely going to be focused on Crowley playing fact checker at that moment and the way the momentum flowed in its wake. I heard one such analyst already describing it as Crowley "putting her finger on the scale." I expect some will wonder why she didn't  call out the president for not answering the voter's question.

In fairness, the CNN anchorwoman quickly tried to contextualize and bring a sense of accuracy to Obama's mischaracterization of what he and his administration mostly told the nation about the Libya attack in its immediate wake. She pointed that the administration stuck with the spontaneous demonstration explanation well beyond the day after the attack -- just as Romney had, in a larger sense, charged.

But in TV terms, all most people saw or will remember, was the deer in the headlights look that flashed across Romney's face after Obama said, "Check the transcript" with a smug, dismissive tone, and Crowley told the GOP candidate that Obama was right.

What should have been Romney's best moment was instead his worst.

Romney did have his moments. He was strong in ticking off a long list of promises made but not fulfilled by Obama. He was also good in talking about the failure of Obama's energy policy being found at the gas pump every day by American voters.

And in purely TV terms, there was a moment where Obama got up from the stool on which each debater not answering a question was supposed to sit and interrupted Romney. It was something Obama did more than once.

But in this case, Romney forcefully confronted the president, saying, "You'll get your chance in a minute, I'm still speaking."

Maybe it wasn't exactly shades of Ronald Reagan, but Romney standing his ground while Obama returned to his seat amounted to Romney's most presidential moment in a semiotic sense.

But, in the end, such moments weren't enough. Romney didn't tank the way Obama did in the first debate. But the Republican nevertheless lost the TV battle Tuesday.

Obama won by a slim margin on points -- and he got most of them for style not substance. The president never laid out any grand vision or compelling reasons to give him four more years. But he at least he got in the ring Tuesday and showed he still had some fight and game.