Andrew Sullivan and Bill Maher slept soundly last night. The two high-profile supporters of President Barack Obama were apoplectic after the first presidential debate two weeks ago. But with Mr. Obama showing up and throwing hard-hitting verbal punches at last night's debate against Mitt Romney, Democrats across the nation breathed a sigh of relief.
The Obama campaign seemed pleased with its performance as well. Overnight, it released a flood of debate footage on YouTube -- something it wasn't quick to do after the last performance.
But it's unclear if the victory simply stopped the bleeding for Team Obama or actually hurt the Romney campaign.
According to a CBS News instant poll, "37% of voters polled said the president won, 30% awarded the victory to Romney, and 33% called it a tie." Interestingly, an overwhelming majority (65%) thought Mr. Romney would do a better job on the economy, while at the same time a majority thought Mr. Obama was better for the middle class. A CNN/ORC poll gave the win to Mr. Obama, 46% to Mr. Romney's 39%.
With Mr. Obama's surprisingly lackluster performance in the previous debate, a simply solid performance would have seemed an improvement. But he did more than that , countering Mr. Romney's aggressive attacks. Indeed, when Mr. Romney brought up the deaths of U.S. diplomats in Libya and the ongoing debacle that is the administration's response, Mr. Obama managed to turn it to his advantage. He not only lambasted Mr. Romney for politicizing the event -- showing a passion his supporters want to see more of -- he seemed to deflate a Republican talking point by claiming he referred to the attacks as terrorism almost immediately after they happened. (In fact, the Rose Garden transcript that he told Mr. Romney to go and read actually proves Mr. Romey's point more than the president's -- and moderator Candy Crowley admitted as much after the debate. But in terms of real-time debate optics, Mr. Obama took the point.)
Mr. Romney didn't back down, however, and pressed hard -- and usually successfully -- to paint the past four years as ones of decline and to make the point that Mr. Obama didn't keep many promises he made in 2008 -- this despite the Democrats controlling both the House and Senate during his first two years in office. He did, however, inadvertently created another internet meme. In Denver, it was Big Bird. Last night, it was "Binders Full of Women."
Mr. Obama was able to win the closing argument. Mr. Romney went first and made an effort to acknowledge his 47% gaffe without playing it up. But when Mr. Obama took the microphone, he pounced. He asked the audience to think about who Mr. Romney was talking about: "Folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives. Veterans who've sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country's dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don't make enough income."
It may not have been enough to stop a recent Romney surge in the polls, but it was definitely enough to mobilize his base and gain the notice of undecided voters.