HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- President Barack Obama stepped onto the stage here on Long Island ready to brawl. Within moments, he had called a Mitt Romney assertion "not true" and ridiculed his opponent's five-point plan as a one-point plan -- that one point being that the wealthy play by one set of rules, while everyone else plays by another.
It was a very different Obama from the one who barely showed up for the first debate. "Very little of what Governor Romney just said is true," Obama said early in the debate. During the first debate, Obama looked down at his notes or his shoes while Romney spoke. Tonight, he turned away from the audience early to squarely face Romney while directly attacking him.
Romney gave it back to the president, as the two stood nose to nose, each looking as if he'd rather be swinging at his opponent than debating him. "That wasn't a question, that was a statement," Romney told Obama early on, attempting to assert the dominance he won by default in the last debate.
It's easier to lose a debate than to win one. Romney was able to unambiguously win the first debate because Obama so clearly lost. Tonight's debate went to Obama, but not by as wide a margin. "If you were scoring it on points, Obama wins on points," arch-conservative Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News. Laura Ingraham and Joe Scarborough took to Twitter to ratify Krauthammer's view.
The result is a race that is at once clearer and just as uncertain. It's clearer because both candidates crystalized their vision of their opponent. For Obama, Romney is an out-of-touch plutocrat who invests in China and pays a lower tax rate than you, has a "sketchy deal" for you, and is more extreme than George W. Bush.
For Romney, Obama is simply a failure, and the sluggish economy is the evidence.
The lines drawn, it remains to be seen whether Obama will be tossed out of office for his inability to spur more economic growth -- a potentially fatal consequence of an obsession with the deficit that predates even his election -- or whether the remaining undecided voters give Obama a second term, reasoning that he did as well as possible under difficult circumstances largely brought about by policies Romney wants to restore.
Tonight, Obama won clear points on a range of issues, from pay equity and contraception access, to immigration and China policy. Despite a disadvantage on Libya going into the debate, one of Obama's most decisive knockdowns came when Romney thought he had the president cornered on the issue. After spending weeks hammering the Obama administration for mishandling the crisis that took the lives of four Americans in Benghazi, Romney once again fumbled the facts.
The president had just reminded the audience that on the day after the attack, he called it an act of terror and pledged to bring justice to the attackers. Obama also handed his opponent a huge opportunity by conceding for the first time that he took full responsibility for the attacks that took place on the anniversary of Sept. 11. But Romney chose not to press Obama on a perceived intelligence failure that caused the attack -- something the administration has struggled to explain -- but instead challenged the president on semantics.
"I think it's interesting the president said something, which is on the day after the attack he went in the Rose Garden and said this was an act of terror," Romney said, then turning to the president. "You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you are saying?"
"I want to make sure we get that for the record," Romney continued, his eyes widening. "It took the president 14 days before he called it an act of terror."
To this, Obama responded, "Get the transcript," but moderator Candy Crowley was quick to fact-check Romney. "He did, in fact, call it an act of terror," she told Romney, to which the president quipped, "Could you say that a little louder, Candy? Terror." The moderator did, however, point out that in the days following the attack, the administration indicated it was due to protests over an anti-Islamic video.
Still, in one of his most heated moments of the night, Obama delivered a sharp response to Romney for accusing the White House of playing politics with the crisis. The crowd applauded Obama loudly, breaking the rules, and Twitter went over capacity.
"Romney is fumbling through a question on Libya that he should be owning," Scarborough tweeted, contributing to that brief collapse. "Considering how badly the Obama administration handled Benghazi, I'm surprised by Romney's jumbled response to the Libya question."
Obama also succeeded at getting under Romney's skin. The surprisingly warm Romney of the last debate was clearly ruffled, as he ignored questions from the town hall audience to re-engage arguments that had just ended. The crowd audibly gasped early in the debate at one Romney brush-off of the president, according to the pool report.
And Romney blundered by making reference to his 47 percent remarks during his closing statement, promising that he would look out for 100 percent of Americans. That gave Obama the opening he needed to mention what Romney said he thinks of nearly half the country, and it gave Romney no chance to respond.
But the Romney campaign made the main -- and perhaps only -- point that it needs to make: The economy is rotten. It's a message Romney delivers persuasively and effectively. And it happens to be true.
Following the debate, the Romney campaign blasted out video of Obama saying, "There are jobs that aren't coming back." He was referring to low-wage jobs that have gone to China, but the Romney camp clearly sees an opening.
Romney is also seizing on Obama's argument that gas prices are higher now because the economy is doing better. "According to Barack Obama, everything's good in the Middle East, everything's good at home. The reason you're paying $4 gas is because everyone's making so much money," said Stuart Stevens, Romney's campaign manager, mocking Obama in the spin room. "If you ever want to hold up evidence that you know absolutely nothing about economics or about gas prices, I think that would be the perfect answer."
The impact of the first debate on the polls was almost instantaneous. A host of national polls showed Romney enjoying a significant bounce, closing Obama's lead and even gaining a slight advantage in some surveys. But while the GOP nominee successfully portrayed himself as an able leader and saw his favorability ratings climb, key swing states continued to project a narrow lead for Obama.
Romney's advantage in the first debate came from his willingness to untether his comments both from reality and from his previous positions. He did so with authority and a certainty that gave the assertions the air of validity. What he said was true because he said it was true.
When it came to his 20 percent across-the-board tax cut, for instance, he insisted that it would not add to the deficit, despite the obvious fact that that is what tax cuts do. Otherwise they're not tax cuts.
"What I've said is I won't put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit," Romney said. "So there's no economist [who] can say Mitt Romney's tax plan adds 5 trillion [dollars] if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan."
Obama called out Romney early and often for inconsistency or untrue assertions, cutting off Romney's most successful prior tactic. Romney backers tried to paint the more aggressive Obama as desperate. "He tried to do a somewhat charmless version of Joe Biden, but I don't think it worked particularly well," Stevens said. "When you saw a different Al Gore [in 2000] in every debate, I think people find that disconcerting. One thing they want in a president is a steadiness and a dependability. They see a person one week ago and they see a different person tonight, and they think, what's next?"
Boca Raton, Fla., is next, on Monday evening.
"The Thrilla in Boca may decide it all," tweeted Scarborough.