But Obama, who had the most to gain from this debate, came in with a particularly tall agenda.
He needed to be more energetic than he had been in Denver. He needed to find a way to attack Romney’s character and paint him as a flip-flopper, without hurting his own likability. He needed to appeal to women voters, who are key to his victory plan and who polls show may be leaving the president for Romney.
And he had to do it all without seeming as if he was overcompensating from his weak performance of two weeks ago, or that he is desperate.
And, with some missteps, he accomplished most of that agenda.
He used a fairly softball question on pay disparity for women not only to highlight his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Act but also to move into a discussion of contraception and Planned Parenthood – criticizing Romney on both – noting that “these are not just women's issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues.”
There were questions before the debate began about the role Ms. Crowley would play, with both campaigns saying that the agreement stipulated that she would do nothing more than invite questions from the audience members and keep the candidates to their time limits, while Crowley said that there was, in fact, room for her to ask follow-up questions and facilitate discussion.
And in fact, she was a strong presence, frequently interrupting the candidates – who didn’t always listen to her – to bring them back to point or ask them to wrap things up, as well as asking pointed follow-up questions. In one case, she asked Romney what he would do if, in fact, the numbers on his tax plan don’t add up (as Obama contends) – a possibility Romney refused to entertain – and in another case pushed Obama to answer Romney’s claim that gas prices shouldn’t be at $4 a gallon if his energy policies were working.