HEMPSTEAD, NY — President Barack Obama wore a Republican red tie; his challenger, Mitt Romney, had a Democratic blue-and-white stripe. But that was not the only thing upside down in the debate on Tuesday night at Hofstra University.
The first polls indicated that Obama had won the debate. CNN had the president on top, 46 percent to 39 percent for Romney.
Democrats had been watching anxiously to see whether the president would reverse the dismal impressions from the first debate, two weeks ago in Denver. That contest dramatically changed the course of the campaign, erasing a healthy lead the president had enjoyed in most polls.
But Tuesday night Obama was assertive and combative, delivering on the promises his campaign had made that he would be much less “polite” this time around.
“Candy, what Governor Romney said just isn't true,” Obama said at one point, as Romney tried to cancel out any credit the president had taken for saving the auto industry.
The audience was made up of 82 undecided voters, identified in part by the Gallup polling organization. Moderator Candy Crowley selected which questions from the audience would be asked, and tried her best to keep the two men on track and within the time parameters.
Romney gave a strong performance; this was by no means a knockout for the president. On sensitive points such as the administration’s handling of the attack in Libya or whether the president has kept promises he made four years ago, Obama often came up short in rebutting the Republican challenger’s scathing critique.
But Obama was successful in portraying Romney as a shape-shifter, a politician who would say or do almost anything to get elected. His arguments were particularly effective on assault weapons, which Romney had previously promised to ban, only to cave in to pressure from the National Rifle Association.
The two men tangled on women’s issues. Romney was at pains to portray his stint as governor of Massachusetts as a golden period for women. He had made a concerted effort to find qualified women, he said, and during his tenure as governor, “[my state had] more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.”
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But his remarks sometimes had a patronizing quality.
“We're going to have — to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I'm going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they're going to be anxious to hire women,” he said. (See ABC News' full transcript of the debate here.)
This was greeted with derision by many on social media. “So desperate they’ll even hire women?” asked one couple in New Jersey.
Tonight’s contest had been eagerly anticipated by both parties. Earlier in the day, Hofstra students milled about under a bright autumn sun, enjoying all the attention the debate was bringing to the university.
Hofstra University showed bipartisan spirit with donkey and elephant hedges.
“I am really proud of my school right now,” said Ariel Adrian, a senior majoring in education. “Hofstra has come together for this debate. The whole campus is buzzing.”
While the students may have been united in their enthusiasm for the debate process, they were far from unanimous in their assessment of the candidates.
According to Dr. Cynthia Bogard, chair of the university's sociology department, the campus leans to the left.
“About 60 percent of our students are women, who tend to vote Democrat,” she said. “But we do have quite a few students from the New York metropolitan area, which is more ‘blue.’ Long Island itself is pretty purple.”
Steven Morin, a senior at Hofstra, is a marketing major who plans to go on for an MBA. He is solidly behind Mitt Romney, even though he does not agree with his social positions.
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“I am for gay marriage and abortion rights,” he said. “But those are not the most pressing issues right now. I like Romney’s plans for the economy; I think he is the better person to fix things.”
Others were firmly backing the president.
Cardboard candidates at Hofstra.
“I like Obama,” said Sarah Bartis, a sophomore who hopes to go into broadcast journalism. “I like his health care plan, and I think he cares about people. But there are some things I don’t like, like the drone wars and our troops in Afghanistan.”
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Malcolm Hyman, who works in the admissions office at Hofstra, says he is still undecided about his vote, although he is leaning toward Obama.
“I think he catches more of the younger audience,” he said of the president.
Hyman is 21, married with two children. He works and is also a full-time student. He is proud that he is able to support his family on his own. This independent streak makes some aspects of Romney’s philosophy appealing to him.
“I don’t think it’s good to keep kids on their parents’ health insurance until they are 26,” he said. “It makes them dependent. It’s better to cut them off at 18, make them take responsibility for themselves.”
Chinese students for Obama.
One vocal group of students was handing out literature and agitating for their preferred candidate, Gary Johnson, who is running as a Libertarian.
“We want our bases abroad to be closed immediately,” said Stephen Paunovki, one of a group of Hofstra students who call themselves Students for Liberty. “The United States has no business getting involved in all of these places. It makes us less secure, because our presence abroad breeds more enemies.”
This group was most likely disappointed in the debate, and not just because Johnson was excluded. Although both foreign and domestic policy were on the agenda, the debate centered mostly on the topic closest to voters’ hearts, the economy. Libya came up as an issue with which to beat the president, but Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and other problematic hot spots got little attention.
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Obama has made fans of several Chinese students at Hofstra. Meng Yang Ye, an MBA candidate, said she believed Obama was a good speaker and a good leader.
“Besides, he is very famous in China,” she said.
As for the Republican challenger, who has made negative comments about her country, Meng was noncommittal.
“Ooh, Romney,” she said, shaking her head.