The one certainty it seems we can take from the past three debates is that the moderator improves every time. Candy Crowley delivered a masterful performance in the hardest of the debate formats, controlling two incredibly combative men.
The town hall format is the most restrictive, rule-laden and complicated of the debating formats. The ability to master the narrative, the moderator, the camera and the live studio audience simultaneously is incredibly hard. While neither candidate demonstrated a Clintonesque knack for it, the format deeply unsettled Mitt Romney.
It seems that the topic that Romney had at the top of his mind was that of the debating rules and time and time again he challenged the moderator for more time, pivoted to previous questions and was generally dismissive and disrespectful. In an election in which the female vote matters so much, Romney demonstrated his worse side, looking peevish and childish when he felt he was not getting his share of airtime.
While Romney talked down to the moderator, Obama tried to charm her and the audience, achieving laughs from the audience, who were under strict instructions not to show emotion all night. Indeed, the whole audience had to go through a rehearsal to practise how to act.
The chuckles clearly rattled Romney and he performed the majority of the night as if he was in enemy territory.
Both candidates were incredibly feeble and weak in dealing with a gun control question that was asked. Despite the spate of recent mass shootings over the past four years in the US, gun control has not been raised in this cycle. Obama ducked and weaved through the question around banning semi-automatic weapons. Romney decided to make the issue about single mothers raising kids, and the fact that two parents are needed to raise a child.
The unwillingness of either candidate to deal with this question demonstrates the tremendous power and reach of the National Rifle Association, by far the most powerful lobby in Washington today.
While the vast majority of the evening was on domestic issues, the pivotal moment came on the single foreign policy question surrounding Libya. After Obama accused Romney of playing politics with the attacks in Benghazi, Romney accused the Obama administration of playing politics with the death of an US ambassador. He then double-downed saying that the president going fundraising the day after was inappropriate.
With a deadly cold fury the president took to task the governor for accusing his administration of playing politics with national security and said that he was being offensive. Rather then back off, Romney came at Obama for not saying that the attack was a terrorist incident the day after. A furious Obama just started and demanded that Romney read the transcript of the speech that he made from the Rose Garden. At this point the rehearsed, neutral audience actually clapped for the president. They clapped again as the moderator stated from the transcript backed the president and Romney came out looking like he was scoring cheap political points on the death of a US ambassador.
Now to be fair, Obama does take every single opportunity to mention the death of Osama Bin Laden no matter what the question. Yet the almost personal nature of Romney’s attack on Obama over the Benghazi attack showed America a deadly focus and passion in the president that few knew was there.
Both Obama and Romney showed up for this one and it was Romney who showed his nasty side. His discomfort at the application of the carefully constructed rules led to his condescending manner and peevish attitude that lost him the audience and ultimately the debate itself.