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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, listens to U.S. President Barack Obama during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 16, 2012.

JIM YOUNG/Reuters

Two esteemed observers of U.S. politics will provide live assessments of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates for The Globe and Mail. The author, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Shribman, writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he is executive editor. Journalist and speechwriter John O'Sullivan is a writer and editor-at-large of the conservative magazine the National Review.

You're lying. No, you're lying. You're misusing figures. No, you're manipulating the facts. Your policies are bad. Your proposals are worse.

For more than 90 agonizing minutes, former Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama engaged each other, sparred with each other, insulted each other, assailed each other, and misrepresented each other. The second presidential debate was more a barroom rumble than a heavyweight championship match. There were punches and counter punches, fibs and whoppers, feints and ducks.

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Unlike the opening event a fortnight ago, when Mr. Romney delivered a near TKO to a dazed rival, the debate over who won this debate will rage through the weekend. But the losers were clearly the undecided voters assembled in the debate hall and those undecided voters assembled around flat screens and fat living room television sets across the United States who heard little new, and little spontaneous, from presidential candidates who seemed to diminish themselves in this town-hall format.

The big mystery in Tuesday night's prize fight was which Mr. Obama would show up, the diffident professor of the first debate or the inspiring orator of his first presidential campaign. He's back, his supporters almost certainly will roar, and there is something to that, though it took him until the last 60 seconds to employ the Democrats' most potent weapon, Mr. Romney's remark that 47 per cent of Americans were dependent on government largesse. (For his part, Mr. Romney deftly pre-empted that inevitable attack by asserting that he cares "about 100 per cent of the people.")

From the very outset, Mr. Obama sought to speak more as a president than as a candidate, telling a worried college student that his future was bright, just the sort of reassurance leaders provide, delivered with the optimism required of successful presidents. This was Mr. Obama's one Reagan moment, and throughout the evening he displayed a profile far different from the one that won him opprobrium earlier this autumn for perhaps the worst debate performance in American history. Gone was the affected broad smile of indifference that cost him so much in Round One. You could almost hear his advisers' sighs of relief and sense his supporters' spirits lift.

For his part, Mr. Romney delivered another spirited performance. He was fluid, fluent, at the top of his game, playing with a full deck of statistics and talking points, at times dominating the conversations and on a few occasions physically dominating the floor. And he buttressed his emerging centrist performance, once by arguing that his party had been listening too long and too ardently to the siren songs of big business, another time by saying that women should have access to contraceptives. These were shuffles to the middle.

And as Mr. Romney inched away from the right, Mr. Obama seemed to work to re-energize his base, reassure his supporters and remind his admirers of what led them to tumble in love with him the first time – emphasizing his opposition to Republican tax-cut policies and repeatedly hitting Mr. Romney for his policies' purported resemblance to "'misplaced'" George W. Bush-era doctrines.

No doubt some if not most Americans are growing weary of, and perhaps even impatient with, these two men, who constantly speak of the voters as people who tell the truth and play by the rules even as they as candidates on the debate stage did neither. Only a handful of times did either keep within the time limit. They interrupted each other so often that an observer would be justified in concluding that in American civic life, good manners are not good politics. To be sure, politics ain't beanbag, as the American humorist Finley Peter Dunne once said. We saw his maxim affirmed Tuesday evening, perhaps to little effect.

But for all the talk, all the stagecraft, all the canned commentary, the stars of this particular reality show were the voters, many of whom sided with Mr. Obama in 2008. They showed concern about jobs, energy, consumer prices. They lamented the death of hope. They said they were struggling–and worrying. In Campaign 2012 the candidates may be accomplished men with Harvard degrees, but the voters are by far more interesting.

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David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who has followed U.S. Politics for more than 30 years for the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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