President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney fought a gritty, hard-fought encounter, unfocused and bitsy, with none of the freewheeling intensity that made the vice-presidential debate such a gripping encounter. Democrats are still likely to be left underwhelmed by their man after the second presidential match-up in New York.

Though it had none of the walkover feel of the first debate, it was nevertheless far from genuinely engaging, tense and hard-fought throughout, without being pleasurable, like sex. Republicans are likely to score it a clear win for Romney, and I suspect many Democrats, if they are honest, will give him a narrow win on points, with Barack Obama once again unwilling to do what many wanted of him — to skewer Romney’s fantastical claims about creating a magical new economy in four years. Still insisting on defending and proclaiming his record, Obama remained unwilling to do what many people believe is essential for him to do if he is to win the election clearly: instil a deep fear of the alternative in enough of the population to swing key states.

The format was a “town hall-style” debate, chaired by right-of-centre CNN host Candy Crowley, who proved no better at controlling the flow of the event than the hapless Jim Lehrer of the first debate. Inevitably, the format — with nominated “ordinary” citizens reading their questions, but with no opportunity for follow-up — degenerated into something of a free-for-all, with the questions serving as a pretext for point scoring and rolling out agendas. As the debate began, the crowd at the upscale Brooklyn hipster depot your correspondent had for some reason decided to roost at, tensed over their sour apple martinis — would Obama bring his game? Or would this be the end of the road, and the beginning of adjusting to a Romney presidency?

Well, Obama didn’t disappoint, but he didn’t, erm, appoint either. The first question was from a student about lack of jobs, what is there to hope for, blah blah. He sounded like a drip, but neither candidate could say that of course. Romney had won the toss, and kicked into a familiar spiel about how disappointing the last four years have been, and how everything, everything would be solved if he were given the opportunity to fix it. “Twelve million jobs in four years!” By now Romney has managed to turn, or it has been turned for him, from nervy boy into — well, I dunno. Willy Wonka? The Candyman? Something between a Uniting Church preacher and a children’s TV show host, and the pilot in Flying High (“Bobby, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”). So every answer becomes more and more “gosh” and “gee whiz” and “everything will be fine” because, and this would be the refrain through his presentation, “I’ve been in business, I know how to do this”.

Obama sandbagged him early by announcing a five-point plan for his second term, which was pretty much more of the same: education, increase smart jobs, smart energy, and I forget the others. That not only pre-empted Romney’s five-point plan, but allowed him to get in the first hit of the evening: “Governor Romney has said he has a five-point plan — it’s a one-point plan, tax cuts for the rich.” There was then a very messy encounter as to whether domestic oil production has fallen under Obama, with Romney firing direct questions at Obama — apparently in contravention against the debate rules — and at one point telling Obama: “You’ll get your turn in a moment.” It was a real chest-butting moment, which Obama did not come out the better from.

By now the crowd, and one’s heart, was raging for Obama to really go Romney, to make some connections between his fantastic promises. A question on taxes and who would cut what allowed Romney to repeat the notion of “we can do better than this”, but Romney left a few hostages to fortune. Talking about his bundle of tax plans he said: “Look, I’ll pick a number — say you save $25,000 over x years …” That was the point at which I began putting a new section in my notebook with indented brackets: TOSHS — “things Obama should have said”.

TOSHS 1: “Pick a number is the truest thing Romney has said because that’s his whole approach to economic policy. Promise everything and pick a number. We had eight years of that under Bush and that got us to where we were when I took over.”

Obama at least went into the way Romney’s plan of tax cuts, deficit reduction and military spending didn’t add up, but man, hammer it home, hammer it home. Where’s the hammer? Is Jimmy Carter using it to build homes? You may need it back soon.

“… Romney was exposed, and began to show some neck, and Obama didn’t get his teeth sunk into it.”

Following that it was a slog through the undergrowth. Obama got a softball/Dixer regarding equal pay for women, allowing him to talk about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and sending Romney off on a mad thing about his term as Massachusetts governor and finding women executives by “going through the binders” which sounded like a Mormon thing. That led into a curly one for Romney: “What is the greatest difference between you and George W Bush?” “Well I differ from President Bush in that I come from a different world. I started a small business …”

TOSHS 2: “Small business?! It was a capital firm backed with millions by banks after you did two Harvard degrees supported by your father’s shares, you poltroon. Jaysus!”

What Obama said: “Well we’ve spent a few years digging our way out of policies governor Romney wants to repeat, policies that were misplaced …”


Faaaaaaaark …

This segues into immigration, and Obama managed to tie Romney to the Arizona rules which are killing the Republican Hispanic vote — that gets a genuine Romney bluster and prevarication — and by the end of it, Romney was starting to fragment a little. We were seeing the Romney of the public appearances hemming and haawing and not good on presenting himself, resenting it really, which was where Obama needed to have him. That was cut short a little by a question on Libya. Obama took the high road, of commander-in-chief  — “I stand in front of those coffins coming out of the plane” — which was a breaker on Romney who badly overextended himself, arguing that Obama hadn’t called the raid on the Benghazi a terrorist attack. Obama countered that he had called it thus in a Rose Garden press conference on the second day. Romney doubted that, and moderator Candy Crowley stepped in to say that, in fact, the President was correct — which got a round of applause from the audience. That seemed to rattle Romney for the rest of the debate and he fumbled the pass into a subsequent question on guns, trying to triangulate between NRA backing and a dozen massacres, got onto “fast and furious”, a bungled sting operation on the Mexican border, which managed to let a bunch of guns fall into the hands of cartels, with which the Right are obsessed, but which no one else cares about a whit.

We hit a question on China; Romney tries to slate Obama as China-coddler, says he will define it as currency manipulator and reintroduce tariffs. I await howls of outrage from the Right at this return of protection, and the acknowledgement that Obama is a more free-trade President, while knowing they won’t come. At last something honest is said in this debate, and by Obama: “A lot of these jobs are not coming back. We need better jobs, so we need to invest in education not tax cuts for the rich …” Even the moderator piled onto Romney here, with his fantasy idea that only government regulation is keeping the US from being fully competitive with China, another TOSHS.

They wrapped it up with the traditional hippy weird-arse question — “what is the most mistaken belief people have of each of you? — which led each to lay into what is ignored about the other, and where Obama finally, finally, played the 47% card. And then it was over, and the hipster den emptied in minutes, as everyone deserted their half-finished piss-weak beers, it being a school night.

Well, it sure as hell wasn’t a big Obama loss, though I bet Fox News is spinning it as such even now. But Romney was exposed, and began to show some neck, and Obama didn’t get his teeth sunk into it. I cheered along with the Obama feints like the rest of the crowd, but afterwards there was that empty feeling, a missed opportunity, and the realisation that two people had tangled, one in fantasy, the other in the real. Like sex. Also a sudden need for snacks.