RALEIGH — On Tuesday evening, the second presidential debate of 2012 put President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney in a town hall-style forum moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley. For both men, the pressure was on. Romney’s strong performance in the first debate had vaulted him back into contention. Would Obama bring it this time? Would Romney maintain his momentum?
I’ll give you my answers to this questions in a moment, as well as my thoughts about the second gubernatorial debate between Walter Dalton and Pat McCrory. But first, a point of personal privilege.
I hate town hall debates. The questions are often poorly chosen and written. The debates are often poorly moderated, and tend to meander. Tuesday night’s debate exhibited all these defects. The best moments came when the two candidates talked directly to each other, rather than sticking to the debate format. The worst moments came after Crowley tried to shut down the best moments.
Now, as to Hofstra University debate, I think Obama was clearly stronger and better prepared than last time. I also think Romney delivered a polished, effective performance. I doubt the event will change many minds. I’m looking forward to a better-structured debate, the final one on foreign policy.
By contrast, the Dalton and McCrory debate – broadcast a couple of hours before the presidential town hall – closely resembled their previous one, right down to the same host (the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters), the same moderator, and the same design of a panel of TV anchors asking questions. Perhaps that’s why both candidates were better this time around. They knew what to expect, and had a chance to tweak their performance.
Dalton was visibly more comfortable, both on camera and in attack mode against McCrory. The lieutenant governor will never be a stellar television personality. In the second debate, however, he didn’t look as nervous. More importantly, he wasn’t as programmed full of sound bites and factoids as in the first debate, during which his answers sounded jumbled and confusing.
This time, Dalton stuck to a few messages and repeated them several times: that the math of McCrory’s tax and budget plans didn’t add up, that voters should wonder why McCrory won’t release his tax returns or explain his consulting work for a Charlotte law firm, and that McCrory’s opposition to the Racial Justice Act made him racially insensitive.
For his part, McCrory stayed relaxed and even-tempered throughout the second debate, rather than becoming testy as he had at one point during the first one. He obviously doesn’t like his public career and personal ethics to be challenged. Who does? But he’s also come to understand that the Democratic strategy here is to provoke him into losing his temper. The strategy isn’t really to convince North Carolina voters to base their selection of the next governor on the public disclosure of tax returns. Voters aren’t going to do that.
On substance, McCrory had an answer for each Dalton charge, though not always a specific one. He said his tax reforms would be phased in and result in job creation. He said that Dalton’s attacks on his personal character were destructive and desperate. And he described the Racial Justice Act as a poorly written bill, opposed by the state’s district attorneys, that is being abused by death-row inmates of all races.
Throughout the debate, Dalton argued that his knowledge and experience in state government had prepared him for the challenges facing the next governor. McCrory responded by pointing out that Dalton has been a powerful state senator and then lieutenant governor for many years. Why hasn’t he made more progress? I thought that Dalton’s answer, that he has yet to be “given the steering wheel,” was pretty weak.
Dalton, lagging badly in the polls, needed to attack. Check. McCrory needed to project confidence and just let Dalton’s bait continue to bob in the water. Check.
I scored the first presidential and gubernatorial debates as wins for Romney and McCrory. I score both Tuesday night debates as draws.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.