10:50 p.m. E.T.
Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the election.
Style: Tone and energy vastly improved over the first debate. Aggressive on Romney’s wealth and polices from the starting gun to breaking the tape. Hectored Romney frequently and effectively when the Republican had the floor. Made sure to imbue his own responses with passion and energy, even as he recited rote lines. Did well in terms of being presidential, emotional, and solid, without slipping into an off-putting hipper-than-thou mode. Was careful to avoid unappealing cutaway camera shots, but was generally intense and stern rather than sunny. The occasional exhibition of his familiar, mellow charisma served him well.
Substance: Provided few details for a second term agenda. Appeared strong when teasing out elements of Romney’s record for an audience that still doesn’t know much about the former Governor, and attempted to defend his first term record, but offered no specifics on how to achieve additional progress if granted four more years. Did everything he could to rally young, Hispanic, and female voters to his side.
His worst moment: Showed genuine anger and disdain during his heated face-to-face standoff with Romney.
His best moment: Hit Romney as a robber baron who only cares about the wealthy at the first opportunity, setting the tone for the evening and getting inside Romney’s head early, rattling him for the duration.
The main thing: Focused far more on running down Romney’s economic policies, life choices, and resume than painting a picture of a second term. If voters have retained their deep affection for the President, Obama’s confident energy and relentless attack on his opponent might be enough to convince them to give him another term; if voters are truly fed up, the lack of specifics may win Romney some weary new supporters. But Hofstra puts a full stop to the reverberations of Obama’s Denver disaster that were still echoing, giving the incumbent an undeniable win.
Style: Showed up with a cool veneer that was quickly stripped away by an assertive, combative president. Efforts to retrieve his carefully rehearsed town meeting basics and debate reply lines were inconsistent. Unattractively lapsed into his tiresome, old debate habit of petulant time keeping and openly stressing over bent rules. Successfully connected to individual audience members and sounded authentic when referring to real people he’s encountered on the campaign trail.
Substance: Made the case for his tax cut plan about as well as he can. Drove the energy issue with force and conviction, a vital part of his contrast agenda with the President. Launched a smart litany in reply to a question about how he would differ from George W. Bush.
His worst moment: So completely fumbled and bumbled a question on the Benghazi deaths by failing to make any meaningful micro or macro points that he risked taking the issue off the table for the foreign policy debate and, perhaps, on the campaign trail.
His best moment: Presented a sweeping indictment of Obama’s failures on the economy, health care, and immigration in response to a voter’s question about why the next four years would be different if the President is re-elected.
The main thing: Flunked his main test of reacting to a more aggressive Obama. Lost control of the event, the thread of his message, and the pleasing, accessible manner he displayed in Denver. Arguably got the tougher end of the questions, but rarely soared even on topics more favorable to him, except for the economy. His errors on tone and Libya make him the debate loser, but his economic arguments and physical challenge to the incumbent might play better in the country than in the media filing center.