At Hofstra, Obama puts a crucial question to rest

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Blake Zeff

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Debates don't actually reveal much about how candidates would govern.

Sitting presidents don’t get up on a stage and participate in staged arguments with two-minute time limits, in front of a live studio audience, with a pre-game show and post-game spin room. That didn’t even happen on “The West Wing”—when Aaron Sorkin wrote it, high on mushrooms.

Nonetheless, there will be moments from the Hofstra debate that will be replayed over and over, simply because they were gripping to watch.

One was when Mitt Romney erroneously suggested that President Obama did not say the Benghazi attack was “an act of terror” the day after it occurred. After moderator Candy Crowley jumped in to say that Obama had actually done so, the president, with a smile, asked her if she'd repeat that correction so everyone could hear it again.

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Another made-for-Twitter moment was when Obama pointed out that Romney’s pension was bigger than his.

And yet another, for some reason, was Romney's awkward reference to "a binder full of women."

But the most telling aspect of the second debate had less to do with zingers and gaffes than it did with the candidates' overall attitudes.

If Barack Obama acted like he felt entitled to re-election at that first debate—peevishly dismissing questions, refusing to respond to his opponent's attacks—his posture at Hofstra was entirely different. Obama demonstrated a desire to earn another victory, and a determination to look people in the eye and fight for their votes.

Gone was the debater who allowed Romney to reformulate his own positions on the fly; Obama pointed out that his opponent was contradicting himself on immigration, noting Romney’s “policy adviser” was the architect of the Arizona immigration plan the candidate was now disavowing.

Gone was the debater content to let his opponent dominate the night by ignoring the moderator and writing his own rules. This time, Obama pressed CNN's Candy Crowley to enforce time limits, and when that failed, he simply interrupted Romney when he wanted to make a point.

And gone was the debater who squandered his allotted response times on restatements of his opponent's assertions and reactive, poorly formulated point-by-point rebuttals. Obama eviscerated Romney for suggesting it was fair that he pay a 14 percent income tax rate on a $20 million income, while people making $50,000 pay a higher one.

When Romney, a confident debater, tried to get through another question about his economic plan without identifying how he’d pay for his tax cuts, Obama called nonsense, saying that no investor would be interested in a $7 trillion deal when the details were still so "sketchy."

Obama's debate performance wasn't uniformly good. He was given plenty of softballs to hit into the bullpen, and connected on only some—failing to explain what the Lily Ledbetter Act did in a question about gender pay equity, and rattling off a lifeless laundry list when asked to name his accomplishments.

But in the way he debated, Obama answered a far more important question raised by his historically bad performance in Denver: Yes, he wants a second term, and as Bill Clinton might say, he means to fight for it till the last dog dies.

Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.