The Huffington Post had a headline that said "Town Hall Brawl" — before the debate began. That was sort of like calling a famous fight the Thrilla in Manila, before anyone knew whether it actually provided any thrills.
Still, the ensuing debate Tuesday — using a town hall format, and moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley — did yield pointed exchanges between the two candidates, and an engaged President Obama, whose absence at the first debate caused so much hand-wringing among his supporters.
On style points alone, Obama was vastly superior to the first debate. He listened intently while Romney was talking, spoke more forcefully and called attention to the changes in position that have brought charges of being a "flip-flopper" to his opponent, Mitt Romney.
The President was strongest in assaulting Romney on taxes, using the analogy that it was a bad business proposition. The GOP nominee looked riled by the suggestion, and his response came across as — yes, here's a word you've been hearing a lot lately — testy.
Romney kept retreating to a very specific argument — namely, that he knows what a successful economy looks like, and this isn't it. How we get from here to there does still appear to be a trifle sketchy.
Romney also hurt himself, seemingly, in the exchange regarding Libya, where Crowley stepped in to suggest the GOP candidate had misrepresented Obama's remarks about the embassy attack.
Because charges of liberal media bias have become a standard part of these affairs — and a correspondent from CNN was seeking to referee the proceedings — I paid a lot of attention to the questions that were chosen. The one that really jumped out by that measure was a woman who asked Romney to describe how he is different from President Bush, to whom she attributes many of the nation's current foreign policy and economic problems. Rest assured, you will hear bitching from Republicans about that question tonight and tomorrow morning.
Frankly, I still question why the entire debate should be geared toward people who after months and months of campaigning still haven't made up their minds. But such is life in a nation that's this evenly divided.
As for other factors, I've made a lot of fun of CNN's coverage (a pre-show titled "Debate Night in America?" Puh-leeze), but I did notice one thing this time, in contrast to the last debate. Although this is hardly decisive, remember those inane squiggly lines CNN runs on the bottom of the screen, having undecided voters manipulate dials? Romney's seemed to flatline a lot more than I remembered in the first debate.
And you know what that means. Blame the media.