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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

Ann Romney speaks to a crowd at an Elizabethtown College rally on Monday. Mrs. Romney called on women voters hit especially hard by the recession to rally behind her husband, saying they would have a brighter future under a Mitt Romney presidency. (Dan Marschka/Intelligencer Journal/AP)

What women want: Is it abortion, contraception, and equal pay – or jobs? (+video)

By Correspondent / 10.18.12

What do women want?

Aside from not being relegated to binders (just kidding!), the answer to that question, it seems, may very well determine the outcome of the presidential election. And so far, President Obama and Mitt Romney are banking on very different sets of priorities held by the women they’re hoping to win – by which we mean primarily blue-collar, suburban so-called “waitress moms,” who are economically strapped but also tend to be socially moderate on issues like abortion.

Mr. Romney is hoping that those women care, first and foremost, about jobs and the economy. Although he’s been trying to modulate his stance on issues like abortion, saying in a recent interview that he did not know of any anti-abortion legislation he would push for, he’s really urging women to put so-called “women’s issues” on the back burner and vote instead for the candidate they think would do the most for the economy and job creation.

Tellingly, a new Romney ad features a mom talking into the camera about how Romney “doesn’t oppose contraception at all,” and believes abortion “should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save the mother’s life.” She continues, as the camera shows her kids doing their homework: “This issue is important to me. But I’m more concerned about the debt our children will be left with. I voted for President Obama last time. But we just can’t afford four more years.”

Mr. Obama, on the other hand, is counting on those “women’s issues” being a top priority for many female voters. And he routinely makes the point that they often are economic issues – equal pay is clearly a pocketbook matter, and paying for your own birth control, if insurance won’t cover it, is a not-insignificant expense for many women.

As for abortion, well, the Obama campaign has a new ad out responding to the above-mentioned Romney ad by showing footage of Romney in a GOP primary debate, being asked: “If Roe v. Wade was overturned and Congress passed a federal ban on all abortions, would you sign it?” Romney responded: “I’d be delighted to sign that bill.” The spot concludes: “Ban all abortions? Only if you vote for him.”

The question is, which argument is more likely to succeed?

According to a recent Gallup poll of women voters in 12 swing states, Obama may have an edge: When asked what they viewed as the “most important issue for women in this election,” the top response by far was abortion, at 39 percent. That was followed by jobs (19 percent), health care (18 percent), the economy (13 percent), and equal pay (15 percent).

However, it’s worth noting that it's unclear which side of the abortion issue those women who chose it as "most important" fall on. And since the question specifically asked women about the most important issue “for women,” not just the most important issue overall, it may have directed respondents to think more specifically about “women’s issues” than they otherwise would have. A previous Gallup poll asking women which issues they viewed as most important found health care was the top response, followed by the deficit and the national debt.

All of which probably means the verdict is still out.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, on stage with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha, hugs Bruce Springsteen at a rally at the Cleveland Mall, in Cleveland, Ohio, on Nov. 8, 2008. Springsteen is hitting the campaign trail again on Mr. Obama's behalf, and he'll be joined this time by former President Clinton at a rally in Parma, Ohio, on Thursday. (Alex Brandon/AP/File)

Bruce Springsteen's letter: supporting Obama, despite 'rough ride' (+video)

By Correspondent / 10.18.12

For most of this campaign cycle, rocker Bruce Springsteen had indicated he would sit this one out. He had campaigned for President Obama in 2008, and for John Kerry in 2004, and he told The New Yorker over the summer that he felt whatever political capital he had “diminishes the more often you do it.”

But sometime in the past few weeks, he changed his mind – a sign, perhaps, that the race has gotten too close for comfort. On Thursday, the Boss will appear in the all-important swing state of Ohio with former President Bill Clinton, and then head to Iowa, another critical battleground.

He’s also drawing attention for an open letter he posted on his website explaining why he’s supporting Mr. Obama.

Now, as we’ve written before, we’re skeptical about just how much impact celebrity endorsements really have – and in general, we tend to sympathize with those saying, “who cares what one famous person thinks?”

But Springsteen’s letter is an interesting read – if only because it seems to encapsulate the struggle that many Obama supporters seem to be having this cycle. While it’s a clear endorsement, it comes across as an almost heavy-hearted one. He writes:

“This presidential election is different than the last one because President Obama has a four-year record to run on. Last time around, he carried with him a tremendous amount of hope and expectations. Unfortunately, due to the economic chaos the previous administration left him with, and the extraordinary intensity of the opposition, it turned into a really rough ride.”

A really rough ride. Not exactly the phrasing the Obama campaign would have chosen, but he gets points for honesty. And in a way, the letter expresses a kind of clear-eyed realism. Not only have the past four years been a struggle – but what the president seems to be promising for the next four often sounds like a continuing battle for more incremental progress and hard-fought gains.

To be sure, Springsteen credits the president for a number of accomplishments – from the Affordable Care Act to the auto bailout to the killing of Osama bin Laden. And, without naming Mitt Romney, he makes it clear he believes Mr. Romney would be a far worse alternative – particularly when it comes to the issue of income inequality. “Right now, there is a fight going on to help make this a fairer and more equitable nation,” Springsteen writes. “For me, President Obama is our best choice to get us and keep us moving in the right direction.”

But even that line tacitly acknowledges that not enough has been done on that point so far. Unlike the giddy sense of possibility that defined Obama’s 2008 campaign, this time around his supporters have few illusions. If they rode into office on a wave of “hope” and inspiration, this time around, it's more like they're plodding ahead in a gritty, albeit determined, slog.

As Springsteen writes: “We’re still living through very hard times but justice, equality and real freedom are not always a tide rushing in. They are more often a slow march, inch by inch, day after long day.”

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, in Hempstead, N.Y. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Presidential debate 101: When did Obama label Libya attack 'terror'?

By Staff writer / 10.18.12

When did President Obama label as “terror” the attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya? This issue has become one of the most contentious to arise out of Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University. That’s because it involved a tough question, a heated response, a lunge counterattack, and then intervention by controlling authority. (It sounds Shakespearean when we summarize it that way, doesn’t it? As if it’s a lost scene from “Hamlet” or “King Lear.”)

This dramatic exchange began when moderator Candy Crowley asked Mr. Obama whether Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was responsible for any US failures that led to the assault in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Obama replied – as he had to in that circumstance – that as president the buck stops with him.

Then he added this: “The day after the attack ... I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we were going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror, and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.”

After a few more lines from Obama, Mitt Romney pounced. Pacing the stage like a big fish that thinks it’s spotted a tasty herring, the former Massachusetts governor repeated Obama’s assertion that he’d used the word “terror” in the Rose Garden.

“I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” said Mr. Romney.

Snap. Just like that the herring turned into a lure, and Romney got caught.

“Get the transcript,” said Obama.

Moderator Crowley, who had access to the transcript in question, stammered out this:  “He did in fact sir ... call it an act of terror.”

“Can you say it a little louder, Candy?” said Obama.

OK, that’s the set-up. Going back and looking at the transcript ourselves, Ms. Crowley was right. The day after the deadly assault the president stood outside at the White House and among other things said that “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.”

Plus, Obama repeated variations of this line at two fundraisers the next day. So, in a narrow sense, Romney was wrong. The word “terror” was part of Obama’s language about the attack from the first.

But in a larger sense Romney isn’t wrong. It took weeks for the administration to state clearly that the attack was a particular act of terrorism carried out by radical Islamists. Crowley made this point during the debate, too, but it got overshadowed by the reaction to Romney bungling the attack.

Crowley clarified this in interviews following the Hofstra rumble. For a long time, administration officials kept insisting that the attack was the outgrowth of protests about a US-made anti-Islamic video, she said on CNN afterward. References to “terror” were general, and details were vague.

Romney “was right in the main. I just think he picked the wrong word,” said Crowley.

For instance, during an appearance on ABC’s “The View” on Sept. 25, Obama himself declined an opportunity to label the assault as terrorism. He said instead that “there is no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action.”

Evidence now points to an organized attack by heavily armed members of a local Islamic militia.

Finally, we’ll take this a step further: Is arguing over word choice missing the point? You call it “terror,” I call it “potato” – the real issue is why the US did not see the attack coming and move to prevent it. Was there intelligence chatter about a possible attack tied to the date Sept. 11? Why didn’t the ambassador have more security guards? What do we know about the motivations of the attackers? (According to New York Times interviews with locals, for instance, the militia in question was indeed outraged over the anti-Muslim video.)

That’s a larger and more important argument to get into. And what do you know – there’s another debate next week that focuses on foreign policy. We bet this subject comes up. Quickly.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama spar during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University on Tuesday in Hempstead, N.Y. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Presidential debate 101: Did Mitt Romney want Detroit to go bankrupt?

By Staff writer / 10.17.12

Did Mitt Romney really say the US should let Detroit auto firms go bankrupt back in 2008? That was a subject of fierce contention in the town-hall presidential debate last night. But the millions of voters who tuned in to the Hofstra rumble heard little more than “did too” “did not” repartee about Detroit’s bailout. We think the exchange was confusing, so we’ll take a stab at decoding the facts behind this big issue.

First, the baseline: Yes, Mr. Romney did use the “bankrupt” word in conjunction with Detroit’s fate, as President Obama charged near the debate’s beginning. (“When Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt, I said, we’re going to bet on American workers and the American auto industry,” were the president’s exact words.)

In fact, Romney published an opinion piece in The New York Times on Nov. 18, 2008, that was titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." He didn’t write the headline, but was given a chance to approve it, according to the Times.

The piece opposed the bailout auto executives were begging for at the time. Better to let the weaker Detroit firms go through a “managed bankruptcy," wrote Romney, so they could emerge leaner on the other side, shed of onerous union contracts, pension obligations, and real estate costs.  

“Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check,” wrote Romney back then.

Second, the response: So what? In reply to Obama’s jab, Romney pointed out that, in fact, Chrysler and GM did go bankrupt. The US government provided billions in debtor-in-place financing and pushed the pair through the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process in April 2009. They emerged shed of some workers, auto brands, and dealerships. Fiat ended up with a controlling interest in Chrysler, while the US itself took a big stake in GM. Today the firms are doing pretty well.

To hear Romney tell it, Obama just followed his plan.

“I think it’s important to know that that was a process that was necessary to get those companies back on their feet, so they could start hiring more people. That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened,” said Romney in Tuesday night’s debate.

Third, the context: Yes, but ... there’s more. While Romney’s op-ed clearly envisioned the auto firms continuing to operate after emerging from bankruptcy, it also implicitly opposed throwing government cash into the process. Yet the reality is that the piece came out during the depths of the financial crisis. Banks were crumbling all around the world; lending for commercial activities was cold as a snowman’s heart. If the auto giants had toppled into bankruptcy at that moment, it would have been bankruptcy bankruptcy, if you know what we mean. Chapter 7. Closed for good. Weeds in the parking lots. Scrap dealers bidding on assembly lines. A managed care/nursing home conglomerate moving into GM’s empty headquarters.

“Many independent analysts have concluded that taking the approach recommended by Romney would not have worked in 2008, simply because the credit markets were so frozen that a bankruptcy was not a viable option at the time,”  writes Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler in his own analysis of the situation.

That’s why, in the final punch on this subject at Hofstra, Obama said that Romney’s assertion that the bailout had followed his outline wasn’t true.

“He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open,” said Obama.

President Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the second presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y., Tuesday night. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

'Binders full of women': a revealing remark from Romney, or a sideshow?

By Correspondent / 10.17.12

With all the challenges facing our nation – from the millions of Americans still unemployed to terrorist threats abroad – is the presidential election really coming down to a fight over Planned Parenthood and Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women”?

That last phrase, of course, was the unfortunate choice of words Mr. Romney used in Tuesday night’s debate in explaining how, as a governor, he had made an explicit effort to appoint women to his Massachusetts cabinet. Upon discovering that most applicants for the posts were men, Romney said he asked his staff: “Well, gosh, can't we – can't we find some – some women that are also qualified?" He went on: "And – and so we – we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women's groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.” 

Let’s put aside the fact that the accuracy of Romney’s remarks has already come into question. (The Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus reportedly prepared the “binder” in question well before the election, and had presented it to both Romney and his opponent.) Or that the substance of his response was, in essence, a dodge of the question posed, which had been about equal pay for women.

The larger point is, in a feisty and serious debate that ranged from energy policy to tax policy to the attack in Libya, it’s telling that the most memorable phrase to emerge from the whole evening was “binders full of women.” It was, as many commentators have pointed out, this debate’s Big Bird.

Apparently, that’s just how the Obama team wants it. With an economic record that’s still far short of where he hoped it would be – and with critics accusing the president of failing to offer a concrete, overarching vision for the next four years – Obama has run a campaign that often seems to focus instead on narrower appeals to specific segments of the electorate, just as George W. Bush did in 2004.

Which is why, throughout this election cycle, we’ve heard so much about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and whether insurers should have to cover contraception. And why the Democrats gave former Georgetown Law student (and Rush Limbaugh bête noire) Sandra Fluke a prime speaking slot at their convention. And why swing states are currently being pummeled with ads by the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Eva Longoria, talking about how Romney wants to overturn Roe v. Wade.

This is not to say that these issues aren’t important – or that women (and men) shouldn’t take them into account when they head into the voting booth. Certainly, women, like all voters, want a president who shares their values – including their views on gender and equality – and for many, Romney’s remarks may have presented an important window into his character.

But it still feels, for lack of a better word, like a bit of a sideshow. A distraction from the main event.

Of course, the Romney campaign has at times played the same game – remember the ridiculous brouhaha over lobbyist Hilary Rosen’s comment about Ann Romney never having worked a day in her life? Or Mrs. Romney’s heavy-handed “I love you, women!” shout-out at the Republican National Convention?

The pandering on both sides reflects just how crucial women voters will be to this election. Independent women are seen as a critical swing voting bloc, and they make up many of the “undecided” voters still remaining out there. In 2008, Obama won women by 13 percentage points, and he has maintained a double-digit lead among women voters throughout much of this campaign. But a recent much-publicized Gallup Poll (which the Obama campaign called an outlier) showed Romney tied with Obama among women. Other recent polls have shown Obama still ahead, but by less than his 2008 margin.  

There’s no question Romney helped Obama out Tuesday night with his awkward choice of words. Immediately after he uttered the phrase, Twitter was flooded with quips, most of which were along the lines of “I’ve seen those binders (heh, heh).” It was all made even funnier by Romney’s squeaky-clean, 1950s technocrat image (he loves those three-ring binders!). Within minutes, “binders full of women” had inspired a mocking Facebook page and Tumblr filled with joking pictures of women and binders (sample caption: “Trap Her Keep Her!”).   

But given the urgent challenges the country is facing right now – including the looming "fiscal cliff," which economists warn could lead to another recession if Washington fails to act, and which has nevertheless not come up in any presidential or vice-presidential debate – well, it all seems oddly off-point. The recent Gallup poll showed the top issues for women right now are health care and the deficit and national debt. In the final days of the presidential campaign, maybe that’s what we should be talking about.

President Obama answers a questiion as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the second presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y., Tuesday night. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Has Obama reenergized Democrats with debate performance? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 10.17.12

Did President Obama energize Democrats with his performance at Tuesday night’s debate on Long Island in New York? After all, there’s been lots of bemoaning among his party faithful in recent days. Many of them judged Mr. Obama’s first debate performance in Denver a disaster. Some went so far as to wonder whether the president’s apparent lethargy in the Rocky Mountain smackdown two weeks ago meant he didn’t really want to be president anymore.

Well, they can come in off the ledge. Obama’s performance at Hofstra University should quiet Democrats’ doubts and help energize them for the tough final weeks of the campaign. Whether the president’s forceful, almost physical confrontations with GOP nominee Mitt Romney stop his slide in the polls remains to be seen. But snap surveys judged Obama the night’s winner (though not by the margin Mr. Romney enjoyed after the first debate). And partisans were thrilled by Obama’s attacks on his rival’s policies and defense of his own administration.

“To my mind, Obama dominated Romney tonight in every single way: in substance, manner, style, and personal appeal  ... he behaved like a president,” wrote influential Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan.

OK – to be fair, Mr. Sullivan doesn’t label himself a Democrat. He further likened Obama’s Tuesday performance to that of “a lethal, restrained predator,” which is way over the top. But he’s been a strong Obama supporter since the 2008 primaries – and after the first debate he’d wondered aloud whether the president had lost the election at a stroke.

Polls taken immediately after Tuesday's debate showed that a plurality of voters considered Obama the winner, though not by much. In a CBS News/Knowledge networks survey of self-described undecided voters, 37 percent of respondents said Obama came out on top, while 30 percent picked Romney, and 33 percent called it a tie. A CNN poll of registered voters went for Obama by a margin of 46 percent to 37 percent.

Again, there’s no indication yet that this will bend the course of the campaign, as Romney’s overwhelming victory in the first debate appears to have done. But it may rally Obama’s dispirited party and refocus the race on fundamental issues in its final days.

“Barack Obama did well enough in the second debate that he can rest assured about one thing: if he loses his bid for a second term it won’t be because he is bad at debates,” wrote Politico’s John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin at the top of their debate wrap-up story.

As to substance, both Obama and Romney went back time and again to the basic argument for their campaigns. Obama framed the election as a choice between two very different ways forward, and charged his opponent as a flip-flopper on energy, women’s issues, immigration, and taxes. Romney gave as good as he got in his attempt to frame the election as a referendum on Obama’s job performance. The GOP nominee pounded relentlessly on the numbers behind the weak economy: 23 million Americans unemployed or looking for better jobs, unemployment hovering around 8 percent, and more Americans than ever on food stamps.

The most theatrical moment focused on Libya and the Obama administration’s shifting explanations as to what lay behind the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Obama at one point said that he’d gone to the Rose Garden the day after the killings and described them as “terror.”  Romney bore in, claiming that it wasn’t until two weeks later that Obama used that word to describe the tragedy in Benghazi. Then moderator Candy Crowley, who had a transcript of the event, stepped in and noted that Obama was right about his word choice.

“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” said Obama. A burst of applause from the audience then obscured Ms. Crowley’s second point: Romney is right that the administration’s story about the attacks has shifted over time.

At another point, while the two men were arguing over who would be tougher on China, and whether Romney’s pension contains investments in Chinese companies, the ex-Massachusetts governor turned and told Obama he should check his own pension. Presumably, the Romney camp’s opposition researchers believe Obama’s investments have China connections as well.

But Romney never got that out, fully.

“I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours,” replied Obama.

Republicans judged the debate not a game changer. That was the headline on Fred Barnes’s story in the conservative Weekly Standard, in any case.

“Too bad for President Obama that he saved his aggressive performance for his second debate with Mitt Romney. If he had done as well in the first debate, the presidential race might look different today,” wrote Mr. Barnes.

Over at the National Review, John O’Sullivan held that, taken question by question, the debate was won by Romney. Romney gave a strong list of the president’s failures in response to a question from an African-American audience member as to why he should give Obama another chance, for one thing. He handled a question about equal pay for women in a deft manner, in Mr. O’Sullivan’s view.

But Romney seemed taken aback by Obama’s Libya response and appeared to tire as the event progressed, according to the National Review writer.

“Whatever the reason, they seemed more evenly matched by the end. And that impression retrospectively colored the judgments of critics on the entire evening,” wrote O’Sullivan.

Stand-ins for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (l.) and President Barack Obama (r.) run through a rehearsal with moderator Candy Crowley, back to camera, ahead of Tuesday's presidential debate, Oct. 15, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (David Goldman/AP)

Town-hall presidential debate: what to know about Candy Crowley's rules

By Staff writer / 10.16.12

If possible, the stakes for the next presidential debate, on Tuesday night at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York, seem even higher than they did the last time around.

For starters, now we've seen just how much a debate can change the race. And all eyes will be on President Obama to see if he can improve his performance from the first debate Oct. 3 in Denver.

The president's team is promising a more "energetic" performance.

But Mr. Obama – and GOP candidate Mitt Romney – will also have a new set of challenges in this debate, as they work with a whole new format.

Obama was criticized for not matching Mr. Romney's aggression in the last debate – but in a town-hall debate, where the emphasis must be on answering voters' questions in a personal, direct style, it can be harder to find opportunities to engage aggressively with the opposing candidate.

Since "town hall" debates were introduced 20 years ago, they've been a fixture in every presidential election season.

Here's what to expect:

• The audience will be made up of about 80 undecided voters, screened and selected by Gallup, the polling organization.

• Audience members will each submit questions in advance to moderator Candy Crowley, of CNN, and Ms. Crowley will choose which audience members to call on. Each candidate has two minutes to respond, and there will be an additional minute for Crowley to facilitate discussion. The audience member who asked the question is not permitted a follow-up.

• Each candidate will get two minutes for a closing statement.

Still, even with rules hashed out in detail, some controversy has arisen during the past week – and it's unclear, at this point, how much leeway Crowley has to press the candidates or to ask a follow-up question.

According to Time magazine's Mark Halperin, the agreement worked out between the two campaigns stipulates that Crowley has a very limited role that bars her from intervening in the debate beyond calling on the questioners and keeping the candidates to their two-minute time limit.

Crowley, on the other hand, apparently views her role differently and doesn't feel bound by the agreement hammered out by the campaigns and the Commission on Presidential Debates. On Oct. 5, speaking on CNN, Crowley said, "Once the table is kind of set by the town-hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y and Z?’ ”

On Tuesday morning, she reiterated that sentiment on CNN, pointing to the additional minute for the moderator to facilitate discussion between the candidates. "There's time for a follow-up question, facilitating a discussion, whatever you want to call it," Crowley said. "If 'Alice' asks oranges, and someone answers apples, there's time to go, 'But Alice asked oranges. What's the answer to that?' "

Both campaigns are reportedly alarmed by her statements and have pushed back – but are also operating under the assumption that Crowley may play a greater role in the debate than they'd like.

In the last town-hall presidential debate, in 2008, moderator Tom Brokaw was criticized by some people afterward for rephrasing many of the questions and asking too many of his own follow-up questions.

The very first televised presidential town-hall debate in 1992, between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot, had even fewer rules. None of the questions was screened beforehand, and moderator Carole Simpson had no idea what each person might ask. That first debate still boasts the most indelible town-hall debate moment, which undoubtedly stands as a reminder to Romney and Obama of both the risks and opportunities on Tuesday night.

A woman asked the candidates how the national debt had "personally affected" each of them. It was an odd question, and then-President Bush stumbled through his response, first looking at his watch, and then faltering as she kept pressing him to state his answer in more personal terms. Finally he blustered, "Are you suggesting that if somebody has means the national debt doesn't affect them?"

Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, took a different tack. He walked over to the woman, looked her in the eye, and launched into an eloquent speech on the people he knew who had lost their jobs or been harmed by the recession, before segueing into the choice he saw voters had in how each candidate planned to improve the economy.

It was a stand-out moment for Clinton, who radiated empathy like no one else and for whom the intimate town-hall style allowed him to showcase that quality and to connect with voters. Mr. Bush's fumbling of the question – and the fact that he checked his watch as she asked it – made him seem out of touch with average Americans, a stereotype he was already fighting.

The town-hall format – whatever Crowley's role turns out to be Tuesday night – is much more scripted now than it was then, and it is doubtful that such a poorly worded or vague question would be allowed. But the format still tends to make for interesting television, and for more unexpected questions – and answers – than in a typical debate.

A screen shows photos of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (r.) and President Obama, as a television news crew prepares in the background for Tuesday's presidential debate Monday, Oct. 15, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (David Goldman/AP)

As Obama and Romney ready for second debate, where do polls stand? (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.16.12

As President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney ready for their second debate Tuesday night on Long Island, it’s clear that the electoral race has shifted, with Mr. Romney probably in the lead by a smidgen. The question now is whether Romney’s gains are due to a bounce from his strong first debate performance, which may recede, or whether they reflect a fundamental change in relative positions.

With polls pouring out every day now, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. The best approach may be to tune out individual releases and just look at the trend lines of the averages of major surveys.

Of these, the RealClearPolitics rolling average on Tuesday morning had Romney up by three-tenths of a percentage point, 47.4 to 47.1 percent. TPM PollTracker puts Romney ahead by 1.1 percentage points, 48.4 to 47.3 percent.  The Huffington Post average has Mr. Obama in the lead by 0.9 percentage points, 47.4 to 46.5 percent.

All these averages follow a different mix of polls and use different methodologies. We’ll go with the best of three and say it’s likely that Romney has overtaken Obama since the Denver debate.

If the election were held today, Obama might still have an edge because he’s clinging to leads in some important swing states. That’s why polling analyst Nate Silver’s “Now-cast,” which judges the outcome day by day, says that Obama would win 284 electoral votes (and reelection) to Romney’s 253 if Oct. 15 were Election Day.

But Obama’s battleground edge has shrunk as well. Prior to the first debate, the president was ahead in all states rated as tossups by RealClearPolitics, except North Carolina. Since then, Romney has moved ahead in Colorado, where an average of polls shows him up by 0.6 percentage points, and Florida, where he’s up by 2.5 percentage points, according to RCP. Romney’s lead in North Carolina has grown to 4.7 percentage points.

Tuesday night’s debate might matter most in Virginia and New Hampshire, two battleground states where Obama’s lead is slim and has been shrinking, writes RCP political analyst Erin McPike in an interesting state-by-state breakdown of the race.

“If Romney turns in another solid debate performance and chips away further at the president’s support in those two states, he could add Virginia’s 13 electoral votes and New Hampshire’s four ... bringing him to 261,” Ms. McPike writes.

That would put the Massachusetts ex-governor on the cusp of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. He could close that gap by winning Nevada, where Obama leads by just 1.6 percentage points, and Wisconsin, where Obama now is up by 2.3 points.

In that scenario, Romney wins without having to take Ohio, a key swing state in which Obama has been solid – perhaps due to the US bailout of auto firms, which have a big presence in the Buckeye State.

None of this map plotting would matter if Romney’s recent gains are solely a reflection of voter judgment that he beat Obama in Denver’s word-joust. Such a bounce could be soft and easily reversed by stronger Obama showings in the two remaining debates. After all, during the GOP primary season, debates often drove polls up or down for particular candidates. Remember when Herman Cain was the front-runner?

But as political analyst Jonathan Bernstein notes on his Plain Blog About Politics, Romney’s gains in the averages of major polls actually began well before the first debate. It’s possible that what we’re seeing is the receding of a longer-term Obama bounce caused by a successful convention and Romney’s “47 percent” comments, plus a smaller pro-Romney debate upsurge.

Got that? In other words, we’re almost back to where we were prior to the conventions, when Obama had a slim national lead in the polls. If Romney’s postdebate bounce recedes, Obama should settle back in with a lead of one to three percentage points, Mr. Bernstein writes.

However, conservatives don’t think Romney’s gains are a “bounce,” a word implying that what goes up comes down. As Jennifer Rubin writes Tuesday on her Right Turn blog at The Washington Post, the GOP thinks Romney has changed minds among independent voters and now needs to close the sale with further strong debate performances.

Romney “is well-positioned to cement the initial impression and keep the swing-state electorate moving in his direction,” writes Ms. Rubin.

This undated frame grab taken from AP video shows an Obama campaign ad on a television screen in Roanoke, Va. (AP Video/AP)

With race tight, celebrities make the pitch for Obama

By Correspondent / 10.16.12

Politically, the United States may be a narrowly divided nation – but when it comes to celebrity endorsements, it’s not even close.

With polls showing the presidential race has tightened into a dead heat, the Obama campaign and pro-Obama advocacy groups are playing the star-power card, unleashing a virtual tidal wave of Hollywood celebrities who are cutting ads, making appearances on the trail, and otherwise urging folks to turn out in support of the president.

There’s this week’s overt appeal to women, with Scarlett Johansson, Eva Longoria, and Kerry Washington attacking Mitt Romney’s position on abortion in a MoveOn.org ad (“I want to talk to you about women – and about Mitt Romney”).

There’s America’s own voice-of-God (otherwise known as Morgan Freeman) lending the narration to a new Obama ad airing in swing states.

There’s the video from Rosie Perez, commenting on Mr. Romney’s remark that he’d be better off if only he were Latino (“Actually….”). That one was produced by two pro-Obama "super PACS," one of which also recently turned out a satiric video by Samuel L. Jackson (“Wake the [word that rhymes with duck] up”).

Big-time musicians are out there pitching, too. Jay-Z has released a new video about “the power of our vote,” saying Mr. Obama “made it mean something for the first time for a lot of people.” Bruce Springsteen is campaigning for Obama in Ohio and Iowa, and last week Katy Perry and Jon Bon Jovi performed on behalf of the Obama campaign in Los Angeles.

By contrast, whom does the Romney campaign have in its corner? Let’s see: There’s Kid Rock, who recently appeared with veep nominee Paul Ryan in Michigan. John Elway endorsed Romney not too long ago in Denver. And, of course, there’s Clint Eastwood – but that’s just rubbing it in.

All this Hollywood love for Obama isn’t new, of course. All campaign long we’ve been hearing about presidential fundraisers with the likes of George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker. But right now there’s something of a celebrity full court press going on.

Which raises an obvious question: Does any of this really help?

Sure, America is a celebrity-obsessed culture, but that doesn't mean people want those celebrities telling them how to vote. To many, it can seem a bit high-handed, or condescending.

And there's evidence it can backfire: A study by the University of Tennessee found that voters who didn’t like certain celebrities tended to feel less positive about the candidates those celebrities were endorsing. It also found those sentiments can work in the reverse, with a celebrity endorsement causing voters of the opposite political persuasion to conclude they no longer like the celebrity.

Even if it doesn’t wind up turning people off, it’s not clear that it actually drives up turnout. This isn’t the first time Springsteen has hit the trail on behalf of a candidate – he did it for Obama in 2008 (when Obama hardly needed it). But he also made appearances back in 2004 for John Kerry. Senator Kerry wound up coming pretty close in Ohio, where Springsteen campaigned heavily in the final weeks. And who knows, perhaps there was a "Springsteen effect" that drove some votes his way. But we suspect it didn't change too many voters' minds. And in the end, it wasn't enough.

In this Oct. 3 photo, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama wave to the audience during the first 'town hall meeting'-style presidential debate will bring Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney to Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island Tuesday, Oct. 16. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

What does Obama want to accomplish in next presidential debate? (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.15.12

How is President Obama approaching his second debate with GOP rival Mitt Romney? He’s got to try to perform differently than he did in their first clash in Denver, after all. That was widely judged a walk-over for Mr. Romney. At times, Mr. Obama was so reserved it seemed as if he didn’t even want to be there.

Lots of his supporters are calling on the president to be more aggressive in confronting Romney, but “aggressive” isn’t a word his advisers are using to describe what they believe will be Obama’s style in Tuesday’s meeting at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York.

After all, the president could appear desperate and unappealingly angry if he just lunges at Romney, rhetorically speaking. Plus, the debate will feature a town-meeting format, which doesn’t lend itself to mano a mano confrontation.

The word Obama advisers are throwing about is “energetic.” They’re promising that, if nothing else, the president won’t repeat a Denver performance that seemed laid-back at best and somnolent at worst.

“He has to be more energetic,” said senior adviser to the president Robert Gibbs on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Yes, but energy without direction is just sparks. What’s Obama going to try to accomplish with his amped-up vigor?

Most likely he’s going to direct that to an attempt to portray his rival as the “severe conservative” that Romney once said he was. That will probably translate into a strategy that takes specific Romney policies and tries to frame them as stuff independent and swing voters might find unappealing.

In Denver, “we saw Governor Romney sort of serially walk away from his own proposals, and certainly the president is going to be willing to challenge him on it,” said senior adviser to the president David Axelrod on “Fox News Sunday.”

In practice that means you’ll likely hear the pair wrangle again over whether Romney’s tax plan is a $5 trillion tax cut tilted to the rich. A new memo from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina lays out 14 questions that Romney might face from the incumbent in the debate, and the first three all focus on tax specifics.

Question No. 3, for instance, is “So how can you claim your tax cuts won’t result in more taxes for the middle class?” Whether an attendee at the meeting will actually question Romney that way remains to be seen; if someone does, we bet Romney’s answer will be the same as it was the first time around. He’ll just state that he won’t raise middle-class taxes, and that his tax plan is overall tax reform that won’t cost the Treasury any revenue because it will be accompanied by elimination of unspecified loopholes and deductions.

Other subjects Obama may try to raise include abortion, an issue Obama aides believe Romney has danced around, and Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. According to the Messina memo, Obama is likely to try to portray Romney’s Bay State tenure as an example of partisan strife.

Back then, Romney’s aides “even erected a velvet rope and cordoned off an elevator in the capitol for his personal use,” claims the memo.

As for Romney, his strategy may well run to smiling and appearing affable while parrying Obama’s jabs. The town-hall-meeting format, in which actual voters are supposed to drive the discussion, may make his job easier. Plus – unlike Obama in the first debate – Romney knows where his opponent is headed. He’ll be prepared to defend himself against the “severe conservative” charge.

Romney “is running on the same platform he has run on through the Republican Party primary,” senior adviser Ed Gillespie told reporter and debate moderator Candy Crowley Sunday on CNN. “The country is a center-right country. They want to have less federal spending. They want to get us on a path to a balanced budget. They want a free-enterprise-driven economy that fosters job creation, not a government-centered economy that fosters economic stagnation.”

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