The Race: President Obama scores a knockout; Down goes Romney, Down goes Romney

What a campaign – when did we last see anything like it? First Mitt Romney spent a month blowing what looked like a sure thing. Then Shazam! He turned into the Comeback Kid and clobbered Barack Obama in the first presidential debate. Then Joe Biden, who was supposed by Republicans to be a clown, turned Paul Ryan, the Marilyn Monroe of the Tea Party set, into a buffoon instead. And now the Prez, after stumbling and sleep-walking his way through the first presidential debate in Denver, came out swinging and clobbered Governor Romney in Debate Number Two.

What is it with these two? They are starting to look like Nicholas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off. Every time you blink they transform personalities, swap their roles and turn from nebbish Clark Kent into Superman – and then back again.

As was said about Max Baer, heavyweight champion of the world during the early Thirties, you never know which side of them is going to turn up in the ring – the killer or the clown.

Well, on Tuesday night in New York, it was the president’s turn to play Baer and he turned Romney, the reigning champ for the past two weeks, into Primo Carnera.

Obama played the commander-in-chief while Romney played the politician. Score this one to Obama. Were you waiting for Romney’s corner to throw in the white towel?

All of a sudden, Barack Obama, the old Obama of 2008, was back in the game. He did what he had to do – not coast passively on his record, but wade aggressively into his opponent. And this time it was Romney who was taken by surprise, as the president wryly described the first debate, the GOP candidate was prepared to take Obama apart and instead this spirited fellow showed up.

Obama won on style and substance. Last time Romney was the one who looked presidential while Obama seemed like a pod person. This time, an obviously confident and fresh Romney was clobbered on both style and substance.

The president pinned him down on taxes. He scored on target and hard when Romney tried to wriggle out of praising the Arizona immigration law, neatly pointing out that the former Massachusetts governor had taken its architect on board his team as a close advisor. All of a sudden Romney looked false, embarrassed and ingratiating. He lost his rhythm. He ran out of control a couple of times – a big no-no that you simply do not do in presidential debates.

Even when Romney played his carefully crafted ace card, the genuine fiasco of the Obama administration’s failure to anticipate the terror attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, Obama trumped it. Romney tried to claim the president had tried to cover up or delay publication of the fact that it was a terror attack for 14 days. Then he casually noted that Obama had indeed called it a terror attack the day after it happened. Obama, channeling Perry Mason, seized on the discrepancy at once and called him on it. Romney looked shifty – he looked and sounded like a politician. Obama sounded like the commander-in-chief.

The President also closed hard and strong, showing the same ability to stay on-message he showed so formidably throughout the 2008 campaign. He reminded his 50 million plus audience of Romney’s (in)famous 47 percent remark and showed genuine passion in pledging he would fight for them.

A mixed verdict for CNN moderator Candy Crowley: She gets a thumbs-up for nailing Romney’s flip-flop on an assault weapons ban, but repeated thumbs-down for disrupting both candidates when they were in full flow.

Obama ought to gain some traction out of this debate. Will it reverse the damage he suffered, especially among women voters, in the first debate? Not fully, I think. But it will help.

The CBS poll of undecided voters after the debate narrowly made Obama the winner by 37 percent to 30 percent with 33 percent saying it was a tie. Those are the kinds of results that give psephologists nightmares.

The CNN post-debate poll of registered voters was more decisive though still close enough – They gave the debate to Obama by 46 percent to 39 percent.

If Obama had sleep-walked through this debate as well, he really risked facing a blowout defeat on Nov. 6. This race is so volatile that it could still happen, or Romney could suffer one. But more likely the race will tilt back to pure cliffhanger instead. These debates have turned into classic Reversal of Fortune stuff. When Denzel Washington and Gary Sinise play these guys in the HBO movie they’ll be duking it out right to the final bell.

(Please take our presidential poll on the right side of the homepage.  You might be surprised who is winning.)