U.S. presidential debate: Who won?
04:31 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Contributors weigh in on how the candidates did in the second presidential debate

Begala: Obama takes command of presidential debate from the start

Stanley: Candidates performances raise stakes for third and final debate

Hogue: "Binders full of women" phrase will hurt Romney with female voters

CNN  — 

President Barack Obama met his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Tuesday night in Hempstead, New York, for the second of three presidential debates. CNN contributors and analysts offered these assessments of the evening:

Paul Begala: Obama capitalizes on Romney’s gaffes

The Alpha Male showed up tonight.

In the second debate, President Barack Obama came. He saw. And he kicked butt.

Paul Begala

The POTUS took command of the second presidential debate from the start. He thrashed Mitt Romney on everything from trade to taxes. And then he closed the debate by reminding everyone of Romney’s arrogant assault against 47% of the American people.

When he is around real Americans, Romney is uncomfortable. He often looks like the Queen of England being forced to participate in the cow-chip tossing contest at the county fair. When asked about women in the work force, Romney, whose record of promoting women at Bain Capital was dismal, actually spoke of “binders full of women.” A metaphor for the ages.

There was one “holy smokes” moment when Romney falsely accused the president of not calling the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a terror attack. But, as the fearless and fact-based Candy Crowley noted, Romney was not telling the truth. The day after the attack, Obama referred to it as “terror” – even before full reports were in.

Obama also shamed Romney with this exchange: Romney, whose investments at Bain Capital hurt members of the middle class, actually accused Obama of having sketchy investments. Obama nailed him to the wall, dismissing the former CEO by saying, “I don’t look at my pension, it’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take that long. I don’t check it that often.”

Romney closed the debate by bringing up the one attack Obama left on the table: Romney’s plutocratic sneer about 47% of Americans. Thank you, Mitt. Obama (finally) spanked Romney like the bad little boarding school preppy he is.

My CNN colleague Ari Fleischer called the debate a draw. Allow me to translate. When Fleischer, who is one of the great spinners of all time, calls it a draw, it’s like me (a diehard Longhorn) calling Saturday’s Texas-Oklahoma game a draw. I would like it to be true, but in reality, it was a butt-whipping. So was this debate.

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, is senior adviser to Priorities USA Action, the biggest super PAC favoring President Barack Obama’s re-election. Begala was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

Opinion: How Obama aced the comeback

Timothy Stanley

Timothy Stanley: An Obama win to fire up Democratic base

Overall, this was an Obama win. The difference between the two men was obvious in body language. Romney walked stiffly about the stage, as if in flip flops; Obama slid across the floor like he was skating on ice. Romney was respectful and polite to the audience, but the president was far more forthright and comfortable with interjections. If anyone was playing a presidential drinking game and took a shot every time the president called someone “folks,” they’d end the evening very drunk.

Obama was selling himself as a down-to-earth class warrior of the Truman variety. And while he held back in the first debate on personal attacks, this time he let it rip. He was unafraid to mention Romney’s low tax rate, his U-turns on assault rifles or his apparent dismissal of the 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes. The Democratic base will love this new, populist brand of Obama.

The debate was one of the most colorful on record.

We got innuendo (Mitt Romney talked about browsing through “binders full of women”) and confrontations (the fight over the candidates’ respective responses on Libya will surely become a classic political moment). How independents will respond to all of this, we’ll have to wait to see.

My instinct is that Obama will rally among Democrats because of his commanding performance. But Romney did better when he reminded voters of high unemployment and the deficit. With one Romney win and one Obama win, the third debate seems ever more important and exciting. There’s still everything to fight for.

Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain’s The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan.”

Read a transcript of the debate

Julian Zelizer

Julian Zelizer: Obama bounces back; Romney stands his ground

The debate will certainly revive the spirits of Democrats. President Barack Obama came out swinging, hammering away at Mitt Romney on the budgetary costs of his program and keeping his focus on the argument that Republican policies will benefit the wealthy.

Unlike the first debate, Obama spoke with confidence, engaged his opponent and seemed comfortable with the issues that came up. Romney seemed to have more trouble with the town-hall format, sometimes early in the debate looking more aggressive than energized. Obama also finally had a chance to respond to some of the attacks on Libya that have been coming his way.

That said, Romney did not lose in the same way that Obama lost the first debate. He was able to land some blows on the president when he spoke about the laggard state of the economy and about gas prices and the deficit. He continued to remind viewers of promises that were made in 2008, and the promises that were not kept.

It is unclear that the second debate will have the same kind of impact of the first, even though it will energize Democrats and make the decision more difficult for the handful of undecided voters who are still left. The polls will remain close, the race will remain tight, and the swing states will remain the heart of this contest. That’s where most people predicted this would be all along and that’s exactly where it will be.

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and of the new book “Governing America.”

What we learned from the debate

Ari Fleischer

Ari Fleischer: Obama should debate Biden instead of Romney

At Tuesday night’s debate, President Obama said he immediately called the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, terrorism. The problem isn’t only about whether the transcript shows he did or did not use those words; it’s also about the ongoing, confusing statements made by his administration – including the conflicting arguments made by the president and vice president at their two debates.

Five weeks after the attack, the two most senior people in the government clashed over what took place.

If the president was right last night that he immediately called the Benghazi attack a terrorist act, why did vice president Joe Biden state at the Danville, Kentucky, debate just last week that intelligence agencies informed the administration that the attack was the result of protests that were under way?

Instead of debating Mitt Romney, Obama and Biden need to debate each other.

Recall what Biden said in response to a question from Martha Raddatz:

Raddatz: What were you first told about the attack? Why - why were people talking about protests? When people in the consulate first saw armed men attacking with guns, there were no protesters. Why did that go on?

Biden: Because that was exactly what we were told by the intelligence community. The intelligence community told us that. As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment.

For context, Biden’s statement was a rebuttal to Rep. Paul Ryan’s charge that “It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack.”

Either the intelligence community told the president one thing and the vice president another (and of course they did not do that), or the president and the vice president still don’t have a handle on what happened.

This administration has a political imperative to downplay terrorism in an effort to bolster their anti-terror credentials. With Osama bin Laden dead, they want the American people to believe that the administration is tough and terrorism is on the wane. That’s why they focused so much of their language on protests and a YouTube video, despite facts to the contrary provided to them by intelligence agencies.

This debate isn’t over. National security is critically important. If the president’s account of what he knew right after the attack is so different than the vice president’s account, they have some explaining to do.

Ari Fleischer, a CNN contributor, was White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2003 and is the president of Ari Fleischer Sports Communications Inc. Follow him on Twitter: @AriFleischer

Ilyse Hogue

Ilyse Hogue: Binders full of women?

The three seconds that Mitt Romney stared dumbly as debate moderator Candy Crowley corrected his assertion that the president had not quickly identified the Libyan attacks as an act of terror felt like an eternity. As his insistence visibly turned to uncertainty then to confusion, the entire fallacy of this GOP strategy was illuminated on live national television: Romney had so come to believe his own lies that he was genuinely stumped when presented with fact.

In the first debate, moderator Jim Lehrer appeared dazed as Romney spouted, according to ThinkProgress.org, 27 half-truths and straight up lies in a period of 38 minutes. In this debate, both Crowley and Barack Obama pushed back and fact-checked in real time in a genuine and noteworthy effort to pull this election back toward a factual center. Without the carefully crafted narrative that Romney’s team has reinforced as truth even to the candidate himself, Romney was forced to resort to nonsensical platitudes.

None will probably haunt him more than his already infamous “binders full of women” statement. His clumsy attempt to avoid having to give a definitive answer on equal pay for equal work led him into an anecdote about how as governor he had a binder full of women he could consider for Cabinet positions in Massachusetts. For those of us who have been waiting for our entire lives to be valued as equal to our male counterparts in the workplace, hearing that the governor’s definition of progress meant having our resumes in a book on shelf was a poor consolation prize.

Whatever gender bump Romney received from Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate may have evaporated as quickly as @Romneys_Binder was created on Twitter. Confused by foreign policy and confusing pandering on women’s issues, tonight was a bad night for Mitt Romney.

Ilyse Hogue is co-director of Friends of Democracy, a super PAC aimed at electing candidates who champion campaign finance reform. She is the former director of political advocacy and communications for MoveOn.org and has been a senior strategist to Democratic and progressive groups. She is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.

‘Binders full of women’ goes viral

Ana Navarro

Ana Navarro: Obama had the edge

The second presidential debate has ended but the election roller coaster ride continues. The annoying truth serum is getting in the way of my partisanship again. I give President Barack Obama a slight edge in this debate, in large part because this Obama was so much better than the one in his first debate. He benefited tremendously from this comparison and the lowered expectations.

Mitt Romney gave a solid performance. He was articulate. He came armed with facts. There were some questions he dominated. But he did make some mistakes. He continuously became the moderator. He tried enforcing the debate rules, which he has a tendency to do and is awkward about it. And Romney repeatedly took on the role of himself questioning Obama. The problem with this was that it put the ball back in Obama’s court, giving him another chance to respond. Romney also flubbed the Benghazi issue. Obama is vulnerable on this issue, but Romney didn’t land a knock-out blow on it.

I didn’t hear “the vision thing” from either man. The one who inspires us, gives us confidence that things will be better and that brighter days are in our future, will win this race. Fortunately, there are still three weeks of campaign and one more debate for these candidates to make us believe. These debates have become analogous to playoff games. Right now the score is one to one. The first debate was a blow-out victory for Romney. The second debate was a narrow victory for Obama. We have one more game to go. Play ball!

Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, served as national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman’s 2012 campaign. Follow her on Twitter @ananavarro.

Funniest tweets from the debate

Bob Moser

Bob Moser: Romney’s momentum takes a hit

Adios, Mitt-mentum. The wind in the Republican nominee’s sails, which began to freshen before the Denver debate and became gale-force after he dominated President Obama in their first encounter, changed direction Tuesday night. The aggressiveness that served Romney so well against a listless Obama in Round One became a liability against a fired-up and focused president in the town-hall format.

Romney sneered and smirked through the president’s answers. He bullied the moderator (though she refused to be cowed). He invaded Obama’s space. And more than once, he made the tactical mistake of answering his own questions rather than the people’s. Moderator Candy Crowley, who has suddenly become the bête noire of American conservatives, often had to scold Romney for not giving people a chance to ask their questions.

It was the most unappealing performance in a presidential debate since Al Gore nearly tackled George W. Bush in 2000. And it was topped off by giving the president the opening he devoutly desired—invoking his support for “100 percent” of Americans during his closing statement, which allowed Obama to close the night by inveighing against Romney’s denunciation of the “47 percent.”

The most nagging question that lingered from the first debate, for Obama supporters and skeptics alike, was whether the president actually wanted to serve another four years. He gave no evidence of it in Denver. But Obama answered that question emphatically in New York, not only by finding the energy he lacked last time, but by hitting every note that he needed to hit. Almost as well as Bill Clinton (a high standard), he did the math on Romney’s fiscal proposals—and at the very least, left an impression in undecided voters’ minds that it doesn’t seem to add up. He linked Romney to George W. Bush. And in the single surest sign that he was dominating this debate, he prevented Romney from capitalizing on the administration’s blundering response to the embassy attack in Benghazi.

Romney’s “bounce” from the first debate was evidence that a small-but-crucial segment of voters are willing to give both these candidates a hearing. The likely outcome, in the interval before next Monday’s Round Three, is that many—if not most—will bounce back to the president. It won’t be merely because Obama was as sharp this time as he was dull before; it will also be because Romney kept all his aggression from Denver, and none of his charm.

Bob Moser is the executive editor of The American Prospect and the author of “Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority.”

John Avlon: Romney’s missed opportunity

John Avlon

President Obama needed a good debate last night and he got one.

Mitt Romney followed a great first debate with a fail. His constant interruption of Candy Crowley and the president – his peevish, “Hall Monitor Mitt” persona – was not just a loss in terms of style points. It was revealing in terms of character. The CNN focus group found that the intense awkward interjections alienated swing voters and women in particular. Tweets to me used words like “entitled” and “bully.” Bottom line, it wasn’t presidential. It was small and self-important rather than big and magnanimous. And it will cost him momentum.

The president started the debate hot rather than warm; he seemed almost too amped up. Romney did a better job relating to the audience as individuals at first. And then the insistent jockeying for time came, and the wheels started to come off his initially steady performance.

The Bengazi moment was also clarifying. Mitt Romney lost a major opportunity to press the president on a still-evolving issue of real vulnerability for this administration. President Obama’s commitment to bring the killers to justice felt hollow one month after the attack. But when Romney accused the president of blithely hitting the campaign trail instead of focusing on the crisis, President Obama’s response reflected real outrage at having matters of war and peace reduced to cheap political attacks. It was a defining moment.

The flip-flops came fast and furious, from new support for Pell Grants to the Dream Act, to name just a few. I’m looking forward to a full fact check list. I was surprised that more social issues questions, on choice and marriage equality, didn’t get asked. Energy and immigration got their fill of time, and China bashing was a favorite topic, not coincidentally because it resonates particularly well in Ohio. President Obama also had a notable moment of unusual honesty for a politician, telling a questioner frankly “some of these jobs aren’t coming back.”

Romney’s strongest suit in this campaign, his edge on questions of deficits and debt, came up rarely. The canned lines fell flat. And in Romney’s closing statement, he suddenly chose to speak more frankly about his faith than at any time yet, showing a warmth that had been missing for most of the debate.

President Obama chose his closing statement to offer an unexpected defense of American Individualism while getting in a dig at Romney’s 47% statement. Overall, the performance was everything Obama failed to do in the first debate: engaged and energetic, balancing vision with stats. He still hasn’t offered a clear second-term agenda, a persistent weakness of his campaign. But the personal and policy contrast was clear, and Obama came out on the winning side of this second debate.

John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns.” He is a regular contributor to “Erin Burnett OutFront” and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to “Erin Burnett OutFront” at 7 ET weeknights.

Van Jones

Van Jones: Romney answer hurt him with women

There are two main things people are looking for during these debates: Are you a strong leader, and are you on my side?

President Obama was clearly a strong leader last night. That became obvious when Gov. Mitt Romney crossed the line, politicized the deaths in Libya, and challenged the president’s integrity. The president looked directly at Romney, and said with firm resolve “that’s not who I am.” It will go down as one the great moments in American presidential debates.

But what about, “are you on my side?” Quick take: Romney hurt himself with women. It sounded like he only discovered the issue of equal pay at age 55, when he became governor – and that his solution was to figure out a way for moms to get home in time to cook dinner. Romney’s “binders full of women” comment is already blowing up online, and I expect we’ll hear more about this over the next few days.

Overall: The President of the United States was the President of the United States tonight. That will help him win a close election.

Van Jones is president and founder of RebuildTheDream.com, an online platform for political innovation focused on policy, economics and media. He was President Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009.

Donna Brazile

Donna Brazile: Obama gave commanding performance

It was Round 2 of the presidential rematch between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And it was feisty.

Barack Obama was clearly the winner. He took command of the stage, respected the audience by giving them answers they could easily understand, and he did it with a smile.

The president came across as a thoughtful leader – passionate, energetic, tough. Though it will be several days before anyone can fully digest the debate, some “instant reaction” is also permanently true: Barack Obama means what he says when he connects with the much-clichéd “struggling middle class” because he’s lived that life.

Moderator Candy Crowley, like Martha Raddatz in the vice presidential debate, had a difficult job: Moderating these debates is like dealing with two guys arguing over the last beer when the Super Bowl’s tied with a minute to go. But, as much as possible, she kept both men in their time limits and kept them within the framework of the question. She showed that moderators need to be journalists first, referees second.

The fact check on Benghazi will be replayed, but it was this response that showed Obama’s true resolve and character as commander in chief: “The suggestion that anybody on my team … would play politics and mislead, when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive.”

Obama won this debate as decisively as Romney won the first. He distinguished his plans from Romney’s and did not let Romney run from his statements or positions. He took pride in his accomplishments, acknowledged the work yet to be done and spoke with compassion, consistency, focus and vision. He spoke as one who is and deserves to be president.

I can’t wait for Round 3.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking With Grease.” She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

News: Town hall format leads to close-quarter exchanges

Bob Greene

Bob Greene: When candidates have to answer to real people

The town-hall format is never perfect.

The questioners and would-be questioners, waiting patiently for their chance to speak to the candidates, can be excused if there are moments when they may feel like props. The candidates – during Tuesday night’s debate and during almost every town-hall debate – are eager to hit the talking points they’ve been rehearsing for days, to shift away from the audience’s questions and pound directly at their opponent, to own the stage.

But there is something exceedingly worthwhile about an evening like Tuesday’s: It is one of the few occasions when men like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are told, in effect, by everyday Americans:

Here’s what I want to know. You’re expected to answer me. If you don’t, you may not get the job you want. Oh, and by the way: You have two minutes.

For one night, two of the most powerful people in the nation know that they would do well to remember the names of people who know the candidates’ own names by heart. At the lofty level of society where men such as Obama and Romney have grown accustomed to living, they are the ones who always want the floor and can almost always count on having it. They’re used to setting the clock, not obeying it.

For us to think that a night like Tuesday is humbling to them – a night where, in plain sight, they must answer to people they don’t know – is probably unrealistic. Wednesday morning, they’ll be back to calling their own shots.

But the format of a town-hall debate is inherently designed to remind two men at the heights what it is like to answer to people, just like the rest of the world has to do. Maybe whoever wins the presidency in three weeks will, from time to time, think about that feeling. If so, the town hall will have been a success.

Bob Greene is a CNN contributor and a bestselling author whose 25 books include “Late Edition: A Love Story”; “Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War”; and “Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.