5:36 p.m.: I’ll be blogging the 90-minute townhall debate, which, judging from much of the punditry out there, is make or break time for President Obama to slow or stop Mitt Romney’s momentum. Because the third and final debate is on foriegn policy, this debate may be the last best chance that Obama has to sway voters on domestic issues before a mass audience. Then again, the election is just shy of three weeks away, and if Romney takes a commanding lead, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of media coverage he gets given that the entire narrative of this race has been that it will be close to the end.
Nevertheless, the challenge will be for Obama to win the confidence of voters, just as Romney seems to have done in the first debate. But it’s an even bigger challenge because the onus is on both candidates to connect with the voters in the townhall and then to the viewing audience and also to slam the other guy.
A lot of attention will be paid to Candy Crowley, and the extent to which she asks questions or even steps in to clarify them.
6:00 p.m.: Brian Williams calls this “the most important date of this campaign so far for President Obama.” There are 80 undecided voters in the hall, begging the question, is that all the undecided voters in the country? Credit to organizers for finding them.
6:06 p.m.: Candy Crowley is asking a followup question, trying to narrow the focus to those who need a job right now. This actually will be challenge to both candidates, as Romney pledged that Jeremy will have a job by 2014, and Obama used his time to outline his campaign platform.
6:12 p.m.: Jeremy’s question has turned in to answers about whether Romney would have let Detroit go bankrupt. He is trying to say that his position is no different from what Obama did. Obama challenges that, suggesting the Romney would have simply let the auto industry go out of business.
6:14 p.m.: A pointed question from one man on why Secretary of Energy Chu said that it was not his reponsbility to lower gas prices. Obama responds with a pledge of an all the above approach, while Romney slams Obama on restrictive energy policies.
6:20 p.m. This is the most vigorous part of the debate so far, as Romney says that Obama has reduced production on public lands while Obama says that it is not true. He hits Obama on the Keystone pipeline. Most visual moment: Romney following Obama, asking him to answer a question, as Obama takes his seat.
6:29 p.m.:The tax question seems to have brought the campaign to what it was before the conventions, if not throughout the campaign: That is, raising the taxes on the middle class or not.
6:35 p.m.: Obama is challenging Obama on specifics, saying we haven’t heard anything “beyond Big Bird and elimination of Planned Parenthood funding.” “The math doesn’t add up.”
6:37 p.m.: “Of course they add up,” Romney says. he defends his plan by noting that he has been governor and ran the Olympics. He then pivots to the deficit. “Talk about not adding up.”
6:39 p.m.: Pay equity for women: This seems tailor made to an Obama campaign talking point, which is signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Romney uses the opportunity to talk about the number of women he has hired while governor of Massachusetts.
6:44 p.m.: Obama is extending this answer to address contraception coverage, child care and Planned Parenthood funding. Polls have showed erosion in the gender gap between Obama and Romney, in Romney’s favor.
6:47 p.m.: This is actually a compelling question to Romney; How would he be different than Bush. he cites energy, trade, balanced budget, and small business. “Our partty has been focused on big business too long.” But there is no mention of foreign policy.
Obama hit Romney especially on China, questioning whether he ever could be tough on them on trade given his business dealings.
6:54 p.m.: Michael Jones, “I am not as optimistic as I was in 2012.” This is the softball of the night that allows Obama to essentially recite his accomplishments — and campaign talking points. But the questioner does have a point about optimism, which is a contrast to 2008.
Romney: “We just can’t afford four more years.” He hits Obama on promises of 5.4% unemployment, as well as proposals on Medicare and immigration. “This is a president who has not done what he said he would do.” He is using his answer to show that things are actually worse than Obama says, or even that may seem.
7:01 p.m.: Immigration is another issue on which the Obama campaign has an advantage with Latino voters, according to polling. Obama uses the opportunity to hit Romney on his primary debate statement that there should be a system of “self-deportation.”
Also a pet peeve: Romney referred to the Democrat Senate and the Democrat House. “Democrat” is a noun, “Democratic” is an adjective. The latter is grammatically correct.
Romney does correct Obama’s assertion that he was the standard bearer in 2008, and even quips that he was “licking his wounds” over his loss to John McCain.
7:11 p.m.: A question on Libya, where the administration has flailed on the questions of just what happened. Obama responds with a strident “buck stops here” response, but Romney uses it to question the administration’s whole policy on the Middle East. “This strategy is unraveling before our very eyes.”
7:20 p.m.: Candy Crowley says that Obama did call Benghazi an “act of terror” a day after the attacks, as Romney questions it. “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama says. This is an awkward moment for Romney, and I imagine Crowley will take some heat in the hours and days ahead.
7:22 p.m. Gun control. This is an issue where both candidates have been criticized for not taking greater steps to restrict the flow of guns. Obama says, vaguely, that he will work to restrict guns that kill many people at once, while Romney says he doesn’t favor any legislation. But he also tries to hit Obama on the “fast and furious” program.
Crowley asks Romney why he supported an assault weapon ban in Massachusetts, but doesn’t favor a ban now. He says that it was legislation where they got both sides together.
“He has said he was for the assault weapon bans before he was against it,” Obama says.
Neither candidate’s response is likely to please gun control advocates, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has chided both campaigns for not putting forth more initiatives in the wake of the Aurora shooting.
7:27 p.m.: An “outsourcing question” yields abnother criticism from Romney on his policy with China. Obama brings up a campaign attack from the summer, that Romney’s Bain was a “pioneer of outsourcing.”
7:35 p.m.: Romney brings up China’s failure to protect intellectual property rights, which is of great interest to Hollywood studios. But almost all of the studio chief are supporting Obama.
7:37 p.m.: Romney uses his final answer to bring up universal coverage in Massachusetts, religion and the private sector, but does not cite Romneycare, Mormonism and Bain, underscoring the challenges that he has had throughout the campaign either as he runs in the primary or against Obama.
Obama uses his final question to bring up the 47% video — which may be crarfty because even though Romney has disavowed it, the Republican nominee won’t have the time to respond.
7:44 p.m.: This was a much more spirited and testy presidential debate than I expected, perhaps more so than in any before, as the candidates felt free to engage, interrupt and even (from the camera angle) stalk each other. Obama was more engaged, informed, cool and collected than the first debate, while Romney tried to use a few moments to put Obama on the spot, but stumbled on the Libya question. Romney was slightly more nervous than he was in the first debate, even a bit rattled by the end, and some of his responses came across as non-sequiturs. He largely held his own, but it was less a visionary performance and more of a defensive one. His worst moment was talking about the rules of the debate, challening Crowley. For meeting and even exceeding expectations, it was Obama’s night, particularly on Libya. But it was not a wild disparity in debate performance as it was the first time around.
7:55 p.m.: Twitter stats: 7.2 million tweets, vs. 10 million in the first debate.
Peak moment: 6:57 p.m., on the immigration question, when Romney slipped on the questioner’s name. 109,560 tweets per minute.
8:09 p.m.: I actually thought Crowley did as good a job as could be expected, given the determination of the candidates to pretty much run the debate the way that they wanted. The selection of questions left a bit to be desired, but there may not have been much choice from a townhall format. Asking candidates what is the greatest misperception about them is not a hard question, but a soft one, perfectly tailored to giving them essentially a closing statement. But Crowley was smart to follow up at least a few of the softballs with followups that put the candidates on the spot, even if they didn’t directly answer the question. And she was prepared to fact check Romney questioned why it took 14 days for Obama to declare the Benghazi attacks a “terrorist” attack. In short, she did the best with what she had.