Most presidential candidates have to debate just one rival. Mitt Romney has now debated two. In the first debate, which he clearly won, the Republican faced a placid Barack Obama doing his own impersonation of Clint Eastwood's empty chair.
That was not the president who debated at Hofstra University Tuesday night. This President Obama was all that he had not been the first time around. He was a fighter, on the attack early and often, reacting to openings that he previously did not see.
The result was a fierce, absorbing, no-love-lost, no-punches-pulled exchange of views that the moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley, struggled to keep in order. In the end, it was the man with the most to lose, Mr. Obama, who was the winner.
But what does winning mean in a presidential debate? Both candidates stretched the truth or abused it altogether. Republicans who viewed the debate would likely not have seen anything to change their minds. But Democrats, demoralized by the president's lackluster performance in the first debate, were given a reason to cheer and be hopeful.
It wasn't just style points that Mr. Obama's assertiveness won. He also managed to hit Mr, Romney's vulnerabilities as a political changeling who was moderate before he was conservative.
The questions from the audience, supposedly an undecided group, gave him new openings.
It's hard for a candidate to explain why he cares so much about jobs when he was willing to let a large segment of the U.S. auto industry be thrown to the dogs of bankruptcy, hard for him to be stern with China for its economic policies when in his past life he was invested in outsourcing, hard for him to explain how to curb the use of AK-47s when he depends on the blessing of the National Rifle Association.
Mr. Obama, of course, has his own vulnerability -- the still struggling state of the economy. But Mr. Romney's doom-and-gloom narrative does ignore the sprouts of progress. And if government can't create jobs, as in Mr. Romney's mantra, how can he be the job creator?
By the end, Mr. Romney's smile was fixed painfully on his face because he had little to smile about. Mr. Obama had broken his smooth managerial facade. Round Two goes to the fighter in the blue state corner.