For all the progress Obama had made in his final practice session, his team was far from serene as the witching hour approached at Hofstra. Backstage, Klain was a nervous wreck. One pretty good mock, one disaster in the past 48 hours, Plouffe thought. So which Obama shows up?
Just then, the president emerged from his holding room a few minutes before heading onstage. He found Klain, Plouffe, Axelrod, and Jim Messina in the hallway.
“Guys, I’m going to be good tonight,” Obama said. “I finally figured this out.”
When the lights went up, it took all of one answer for the Obamans to realize that the president wasn’t kidding. Replying to the first questioner, a 20-year-old college student worried about finding work after graduation, Obama locked eyes with the young man and spoke crisply and pointedly. In the space of six sentences, the president plugged higher education and touted his job-creation record, his manufacturing agenda, and his rescue of the auto industry—plunging an ice pick into Romney by invoking “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” When Mitt cited his five-point economic plan in answer to a follow-up from Crowley, Obama let loose with his one-point-plan zinger. He was fast. He was hammy. He was gliding around the stage.
In the staff room, Obama’s increasingly giddy team kept track of his progress, using his debate-on-a-page as a scorecard, ticking off the hits one by one as he delivered them. On outsourcing to China, immigration (self-deportation), women’s issues (Planned Parenthood), and more, the president was not only proving himself an able student but making Romney pay for every rightward lunge he had taken during the nomination contest.
Romney responded aggressively but with visible annoyance as he found himself forced to keep doubling back to answer attacks from minutes earlier, which made him appear petty and threw him off rhythm. In Denver, Mitt’s propensity for gaffes had vanished as if by magic; at Hofstra, presto-change-o, it returned. Boasting of his commitment to gender equity in the Massachusetts statehouse, he referred to the résumés he reviewed for Cabinet posts as “binders full of women.”
About two thirds of the way through the 90 minutes, Romney tried to roll out a hit on Obama’s financial portfolio. “Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?” Romney asked.
“You know, I don’t look at my pension,” Obama said without missing a beat and with a mile-wide smile. “It’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take as long.”
The debate was now a little more than an hour old. The next question from the audience had to do with Benghazi. Obama explained the steps he had taken in the wake of the September 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission there—and then turned his attention to his opponent. “While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release trying to make political points,” the president said sternly.
Romney got in a jab about the inappropriateness of Obama having taken a political trip on September 12. But Romney went further. “There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration or actually whether it was a terrorist attack,” he said. “And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack, and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people.”
Obama summoned his highest dudgeon and responded: “The day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror. And I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families. And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of State, our U.N. ambassador—anybody on my team—would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander-in-chief.”
Obama returned to his stool and took a sip of water. Romney, incredulous, began to splutter.
“You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration? Is that what you’re saying?”
With an icy stare, Obama set a trap: “Please proceed, Governor.”
“I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president fourteen days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” Romney insisted.
“Get the transcript,” Obama said—at which point Candy Crowley interceded.
“He did, in fact, sir,” Crowley said to Romney. “He did call it an act of terror.”
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama said, twisting the knife in Romney’s back. The crowd burst into laughter and applause.
Minutes later, the debate was over. The Obamans were ebullient. The president’s performance hadn’t been perfect, but judged against the standards of Denver (or the Mock From Hell) it was pure genius. As he came off the stage, Obama thought he had done well. But having initially misjudged his performance the last time out, he was slightly tentative.
“That was good, right?” Obama asked.