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It comes as no surprise that last Wednesday's presidential debate has changed the polling numbers in the U.S. Tens of millions of people watched and came away with an impression of a lacklustre, detached president and an engaged, highly motivated challenger.

Still, debates offer signals and hints but not a substantial, nuanced portrait of candidates. For that we can turn to Frontline's The Choice 2012 (PBS, Tuesday, 9 p.m.).

It is a two-hour, commercial-free examination of "the lives, choices and politics of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney." Big Bird doesn't come into it.

What does arise often is the family past of both men and in particular the matter of their fathers. For one, Romney, there was the example of a much-liked, driven man who didn't quite reach the political success he wanted. For the other, Obama, there was the lack of a father figure and the suggestion that the absent father figure made him something of a loner who formed groups around him as a substitute for family.

The program, which is a terrifically rich character study, opens with the suggestion, "what unites them is the sense they knew where they were going, a destiny … " This is true in political terms, but after two hours the conclusion is also reached that what unites them is issues about dad.

We're told by one observer – old friends, family members, pundits and biographers are interviewed – that "Obama's is the most insular of administrations." And this view is emphasized by others. Obama's reliance on close allies and unwillingness to glad-hand many of the rich and powerful is explained. There's evidence for this but there's a subtext, too – Obama has internalized the issue of an absent father and emerged a brilliant but highly individualistic politician and man. The lack of father-figure guidance is, in fact, a gift to him.

And while it's true that Obama emerges here as a puzzle, the greater puzzle is Mitt Romney's personal political values.

There is nothing difficult to understand in Romney's admiration for his father. George Wilcken Romney was an immensely successful businessman and popular governor of Michigan but failed to win the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1968, after making a strong start. Mitt Romney is motivated to match his dad's success, step by step, and transcend it.

The Romney riddle is rooted in his history of changing positions on many issues. The program opens with Romney debating Ted Kennedy when he was challenging Kennedy for the Massachusetts Senate seat in 1994. Kennedy tore Romney apart, but that's not what's memorable. What sticks is the emphatic picture of Mitt Romney as moderate Republican, socially liberal and fiscally conservative. A strong narrative thread in the program is the shifting of Romney's views, this way and that, to get elected. A cynic would say this guy, deeply religious, would be willing to sell his soul to the devil to get elected. As Romney shaped his political career around key issues and was promoted as "the wildly successful venture capitalist," Obama had grown out of being the dope-smoking "Barry" Obama and forged a path toward power that was as unlikely as his unconventional, multicultural background. One of the striking aspects of the program is its revelation of just how articulate and thoughtful Obama was as a young man still seeking roots and a role in American public life.

Letters he wrote that are quoted here illuminate Obama the conciliator, someone always seeking to empathize with people who have very, very different views and specific grievances. It seems a peculiar path to power, one lacking in ruthlessness but driven by a self-defining creed, not an inherited one. Again, one tends to think of the absent father as a reason for the route taken.

In Romney's case, it is made clear, creed is everything and it is a burden. Romney's Mormon faith has shaped him and his family, but his reluctance to articulate the nuances of that faith makes others suspicious.

There is a fine scene in this Frontline in which an Iowa Republican power broker talks about meeting Romney to discuss Romney's possible run for the Republican nomination in 2008. He talks about a dinner with the Romneys during which he brought up what he knew were the key issues. He calls them "the three "m's" – Mormon, Massachusetts and multimillionaire. When he explained how these words might alienate Republicans, he says, Romney was furious, and his wife Ann walked out of the dinner, never to return.

This being Frontline and PBS, there is nothing that could be described as "explosive" in this long biography of two men. But the show gives enough detail, frank opinions and analysis to deliver a sobering dual portrait. Part psychological take on the candidates and part policy examination, it's an eye-opening two hours.

All times ET. Check local listings.