Does Town Brawl debate have a real loser?

 
President Barack Obama in Mount Vernon, Iowa 17 October 2012 President Obama's performance was much more confrontational in Tuesday's debate

The passive President Barack Obama of the first debate turned into Brutal Barack for the second confrontation.

It proved to the pundits that Mr Obama is up for the job. The aggression of both men - not just attacking their opponent's position but jostling for the last word, trying to stop the other speaking - will please some supporters.

The Daily Mail calls it the "most rancorous presidential debate ever". ABC News' Jake Tapper suggests it really is personal - the two men dislike each other.

It is true that in any other context this sort of body language would be alarming.

At one point, as they faced each other, toe-to-toe, it looked like two guys in a bar on the verge of "taking it outside".

In that setting, friends would step in and pull them apart. That was not the moderator's job, and although of course it was never going to get physical the body language stayed pretty basic.

In one such instance, as Mr Romney floundered and stumbled, Mr Obama strode nearer, the dominant male signaling that his temporally-weakened opponent should shut up.

Start Quote

"Finger-pointing is not something typically I would coach. But all the normal rules are off because this was all-out war”

End Quote Patti Wood Body language expert
'Surreal aggression'

It made me think of an interesting recent piece of research by ABC News' Gary Langer, which suggests 62% of independents view the race unfavourably.

I interviewed Langer for a pre-debate piece on the BBC's 10 O'clock News, and he made the point that Mr Romney had tried to win by not being Mr Obama; then Mr Obama tried to win by not being Mr Romney. Neither approach was working.

On Tuesday, both men needed to give positive reasons to vote for them. They may not have done that in this Town Brawl (hat tip to Boston radio station WBUR - wish I had thought of it first).

I have long said this election will be all about turnout. Consider that in 2008, in an election that seemed to excite many people, 47% of Americans could not be bothered to vote.

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Although there is a lot at stake, I imagine far more will be disinclined to do so this time round. It is an open question whether the sort of passion on display last night will interest people more, or the tone will just turn more of them off.

As Hofstra University in Long Island clears up after the big debate, I spoke to two students who were in the hall. Both were taken aback by the harshness of the clash they witnessed.

Stephen Paunovski, who is leaning towards the Republicans, told me: "It was surreal. You could feel it in the room. There was one point both of them got up and the whole room was tense. We could feel the aggression between them.

"It was good for the spectacle. You could tell both of these candidates wanted it and it's important to see who wants it more and who wants it less.

"But a lot of the main points that Americans wanted to hear weren't heard because of the aggression. And that put me off."

Amber Neff is more likely to vote for Mr Obama, but is less certain now.

"It really wasn't what I was expecting," she said. "I didn't think it was going to be that aggressive.

"I know that Romney is that aggressive but I didn't think that Obama would step up to the plate and become that aggressive.

"I didn't like Romney in the previous debate because he was so aggressive but now it is an equal playing field for both of them on that."

These two students are certainly not alone in finding aggression annoying. However, President Obama learnt the hard way that dull passivity hardly goes down well either.

But if the troupe is simply conditioned to follow the alpha male, it does not say much about the battle of ideas.

 
Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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