Following his weak performance in the first round, all eyes were on US President Barack Obama as he squared off against his challenger Mitt Romney in their second televised debate.
The collective sigh of relief among Obama supporters after the second presidential debate Tuesday night was audible. Right from the start, Obama gave an entirely different performance compared to the first encounter.
Instead of the passive, almost sleepy impression he made two weeks ago, Obama was energetic and attentive this time around. He vigorously countered Mitt Romney's arguments and kept returning, again and again, to his central theme: strengthening the middle class and providing opportunities for all.
Obama accused his opponent of only defending the interests of the rich. "Governor Romney says he has a five-point plan," the president declared in the Hofstra University auditorium in Hempstead, New York. "Governor Romney does not have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan - and this plan is to make sure that the people at the top follow their own rules."
But, the Republican challenger Mitt Romney held his own and was able to make some convincing points, although he lost overall, compared to the first debate. In its initial survey of registered voters who watched the debate, news channel CNN said 46 percent thought Obama had won the debate, while 39 percent thought Romney did better. 73 percent said the president had done better than they expected. For Obama this was an important success after losing ground in the first duel. Opinion polls across the country, two weeks ago, had swung markedly toward Romney, including in the so-called battleground states where voter preferences for either candidate are very slim.
Women in focus
In Florida and North Carolina, for example, Romney - a former governor of Massachusetts - had actually overtaken Obama in some surveys. Romney even made inroads among CNN's generally left-leaning audience. They gave him a better grade than Obama on economic issues, healthcare reform, taxes and budget policies.
Whether Romney gained ground among female viewers this time, as he did in the first round - remains to be seen. Among Twitter users, one comment by the former governor was criticized immediately: He claimed in connection with the debate on gun laws that some children and teenagers were prone to violence because they were raised by single mothers. Instead of new gun laws, Romney said, the country needed policies to strengthen traditional partnerships. Obama, for his part, called for re-introducing the ban on automatic weapons, which, due to Republican resistance, has expired.
On the question how he would guarantee that women get equal treatment in the working world, Romney said: "By strengthening the economy so that businesses are eager to hire women." President Obama, at this point, took note of a bill he signed into law that guarantees that women earn the same pay as men for the same job.
Questions by the people
The 90-minute debate had a different format this time around. In Tuesday's so-called town hall discussion undecided voters asked the questions.
As a result, Obama and Romney were able to get closer to the people and move more freely. But, in more than one instance, they also evaded a question. In one case, a man wanted to know whether the State Department had actually denied a request by the US consulate in the Libyan city of Bengazi for additional security personnel before a fatal attack there killed a US diplomat. Obama did not answer the question and went off on a tangent, although government officials had confirmed just that during a congressional hearing on the incident.
Romney fumbled the ball on this issue, getting himself tangled up in details, so that the point for this answer went to Obama after all. Obama accepted responsibility for the Bengazi attack, although the day before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an effort to deflect the blame away from the president, had declared that it had been her responsibility and her fault.
Other issues during the debate included taxes, unemployment, immigration reform, and energy policies.
Romney had a strong moment when he listed all the things the president failed to do during his first term in office, such as reduce unemployment, tackle the budget and national deficits and implement immigration reforms. Obama, on the other hand, accused Romney of not being able to finance his planned tax cuts. But the debate brought few new details, and because both candidates accused each other of ignoring or bending the facts the confrontation became rather heated at times.
Both sides satisfied
The campaign teams of both sides appeared satisfied with the outcome of the debate. The president's campaign chief, Jim Messina, said that "Obama clearly won tonight's debate. The American people saw their leader tonight - a strong, steady and decisive president with an affirmative vision to move this country forward and build the economy from the middle out, not the top down."
Virginia's governor, Bob McDonnell, declared that Romney had made clear what decision Americans face in three week's time: "Whether he was talking about jobs, taxes, healthcare or foreign policy, he drew a stark contrast between his pro-growth policies, which ensure American strength at home and abroad, and President Obama's tax-hiking, government-growing record, which has failed to turn around our economy or increase our nation's influence around the world."
The third, and last debate, scheduled for October 22 in Florida, will focus entirely on foreign policy.