Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- If the first presidential debate in Denver was a game changer,Tuesday night's was not. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a spirited, heavyweight bout with several consequential moments.
President Obama entered the second presidential debate needing to make up serious ground after his first debate performance. He turned around the narrative from the first debate -- that he was listless and lethargic and on the defensive -- but showing up is one thing, winning is another. Obama needed a convincing win Tuesday night, and he did not get it.
Gov. Romney came into Tuesday night's debate needing to prove that his first performance wasn't a fluke -- in other words, that he wasn't Jimmy Carter in the Reagan-Carter debates, when Carter won early on but went on to get dominated by a Reagan comeback. Tuesday night Romney delivered again and proved his performance was consistent and legitimate. He has established himself as a legitimate alternative to the president.
Romney was relaxed and not intimidated by Obama's newfound aggressiveness. He was responsive and flexible. He went toe to toe early on, challenging the president directly over the production of oil on government land and winning on the facts.
One of the highlights of Romney's night was when he spoke directly to the African-American man who voted for Obama in 2008, but wondered whether the next four years would be any different if Obama were re-elected. In an encyclopedic fashion, Romney gave a litany of Obama's failed promises and failed record. Romney was at his best when he told the voters in the room to look at the president's record and policies, rather than listening to his rhetoric, and then proceeded to explain the impact of the Obama policies and what he would do differently.
In what may be one of the more important political moments of the debate, Romney was asked how he would be different from George W. Bush. Romney effectively distanced himself from Bush on policy specifics, noting he would control deficit spending and champion small business, not just big business. It was an important moment to convince many undecided voters that he is not Bush 2.0.
From the first whistle, Obama was stronger, more forceful, and more aggressive, no doubt to the delight of his supporters. If Obama landed punches it was because he threw a lot of them -- mainly on Romney's private equity career and tax returns. But too often his attacks seemed rehearsed and scripted.
Furthermore, Obama spent more time attacking Romney than focusing on his own vision for the future. Obama didn't lay out a new, bold, or different plan for a second term dealing with the debt or entitlements. Romney was looking to the future; Obama was trying to remind the country of the Bush years and tie Romney to Bush.
If there was a key takeaway from the debate indicative of the race going forward, it may be the heated exchange over Libya and the president's handling of the attack on our ambassador. The president was directly asked about the security in Benghazi and who declined the requests for more security in Libya. Obama didn't answer the question. Romney could have called him on it and missed a big opportunity.
Then there was the most controversial moment of the night, when moderator Candy Crowley intervened to insert that Obama did in fact call the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens "terror" attacks in his Rose Garden speech the next day.
Obama actually said, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for." There will be much parsing and spinning of these words, but Romney shouldn't have let Crowley interrupt him and assert her own interpretation.
For two weeks after the president's Rose Garden speech, Obama and his administration peddled the explanation of a spontaneous protest sparked by a YouTube video, before they finally called the Benghazi attack what it really was -- a terrorist attack. Romney should have emphasized this mishandling. He may have missed this moment, but he will have another chance during next week's foreign policy debate.
Until now, the momentum of this race has been about impressions and appearance -- Romney's aggressiveness and forcefulness in the first debate versus Obama's listlessness and lethargy. In Tuesday night's debate, Obama gets points for showing up, but that's hardly something for the Democrats to be proud of. The impression Romney made in the first debate he reaffirmed Tuesday night, meaning that Obama has still has ground to make up going into the final debate next week.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.