Romney menaces, but Obama emerges as the alpha male in 2nd presidential debate

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If there was any doubt that President Barack Obama came to Hofstra University ready to rumble, it was dispelled in the first few minutes of the debate. Faced with the accusation by Mitt Romney that he in fact took Romney’s advice and “took General Motors into bankruptcy,” the president came out swinging.

“Candy, what Governor Romney said just isn’t true,” Obama retorted. It was a phrase he used several times. Obama pressed his case not just against Romney, but for his own accomplishments in the second debate of the quickly closing election season.

He reeled off the figures: 31 consecutive months of job growth, 5 million new jobs, the successful conclusion of the Iraq war and the killing of Osama bin Laden, and repeatedly hammered Romney on his plan to reduce taxes on the top 1 percent. Obama even tied Romney to Congress — the first time he’s done so overtly in the recent campaign — saying Romney as leader of the party has said “me too” to a number of unpopular ideas, on women’s health, on immigration, and on voucherizing Medicare.

Romney, for his part, seemed to take the media praise from his first, aggressive debate performance too much to heart. At times, he physically menaced the president, barreling toward him on stage and at one point, demanding to know whether the president has checked his retirement accounts, because surely there are foreign investments there, just like Romney’s investments in the Caymans.

theGrio: President Obama’s top moments from the second debate ↓

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It was a bizarre strategy, that combined ignoring or overruling the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, and getting into the president’s physical space. At one point, Romney even admonished the president, “I’m still talking. You’ll get your chance when I’m done.”

Obama’s response was to assert himself physically — he stands at Romney’s height — but to disarm the overly intrusive Romney attacks with a smile.

That smile masked a killer instinct not seen in the first debate. Obama dismissed Romney’s “five-point plan” for job creation by saying, “Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That’s been his philosophy in the private sector, that’s been his philosophy as governor, that’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.”

“You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less,” the president said of Romney’s policies. “You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and you still make money.”

And with that, Obama reset the terms of the debate back to where the Obama campaign had them before the first debate: Romney as heartless vulture capitalist. Romney didn’t really respond to the charge, preferring to answer every question with a put-down of the last four years, followed by a vague, “I know how to create jobs!” It was an answer that seemed to lack both specificity, and preparation.

But it was Romney’s physicality, and his aggression, that was most jarring in the debate. It didn’t stop at Obama. He also bluntly refused requests by Crowley to answer questions, or to give specifics, opting instead to return to previous questions he didn’t feel he got enough time to elaborate on. It resulted in a strange performance, in which Romney appeared to flout the rules of the debate, and to disrespect both the president, and dismiss the female moderator. And unlike Vice President Joe Biden, who turned in an interruption-heavy debate performance last week, Romney didn’t do either with a smile.

On Libya, when Romney attempted to nail the president for failing to declare the attack an act of terror, Obama insisted that he did in his first press conference, prompting Romney to push even harder, repeating over and over again that the president had been caught in a falsehood. When the moderator, Candy Crowley, corrected Romney, Obama took his stool, and coolly asked Crowley to “say it a little louder,” then urging Romney to “proceed.” Romney stammered out an answer, but by then, conservative Daily Beast writer Andrew Sullivan was not the only Twitter denizen declaring Obama to have emerged as the debate’s “alpha male.”

Obama closed with the “47 percent” remark that his base had been waiting for, speaking of Romney’s remark to a room full of wealthy donors, that nearly half of the country think of themselves as victims and “refuse to take personal responsibility” for their lives.

“Think about who he was talking about,” the president said, reeling off a list that included veterans who have fought for the country, and ordinary Americans who have done all they can and still fallen short of economic parity. “I wanna fight for them, because I believe if they succeed, the country succeeds.”

After the debate, Romney surrogates were muted, including the usually bombastic John Sununu, who in the spin room mainly critiqued Obama for “interrupting” Romney, and the moderator being “wrong” on the Benghazi question. Obama surrogates, including DNC chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and DNC executive director Patrick Gaspard, were elated with their man’s performance, which was a 180 degree correction of his muted Denver debate.

Perhaps Obama just needed an audience. Maybe, as Gaspard said, his competitive instincts kicked in. Or maybe that rope-a-dope in Denver was a prelude to a planned series of haymakers in Hempstead.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport