It set the stage for a willingness to spar with Romney – an interaction that often doesn’t happen in town-hall debates, where the emphasis is on engaging with the questioner – and it happened repeatedly through the night, as Romney and Obama tussled with each other about their positions and statements on energy, the Libya attack, immigration, and tax policy.
Romney’s strongest moments in the debate came when he characterized Obama’s first four years in stark terms.
“I think you know that these last four years haven't been so good as the president just described and that you don't feel like you’re confident that the next four years are going to be much better either,” Romney told a questioner who said he had voted for Obama four years ago but was less optimistic this time around.
“I can tell you that if you were to elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get,” Romney said, before launching into criticisms ranging from unemployment and the growing numbers of people in poverty to his failure to reform entitlement programs or immigration. “The president has tried, but his policies haven't worked,” Romney said.
Romney was strong at the debate's end, too, though he misfired notably when he answered a question on gender pay inequity by referring to “whole binders full of women” that he had his staff in the Massachusetts governor’s office bring him when there weren’t enough women candidates for cabinet positions. The phrase quickly became one of the most mocked of the night on Twitter and elsewhere.
But Obama, who had the most to gain from this debate, came in with a particularly tall agenda.