Experts at KU say Obama bests Romney in second presidential debate

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama exchange views during the second presidential debate Tuesday at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

The coach and one of the students responsible for Kansas University’s 2009 national debate championship both said Barack Obama rebounded with a victory in Tuesday’s presidential debate, but both candidates have shown off strong argumentative chops so far.

Scott Harris, the KU debate coach, and Brett Bricker, part of KU’s two-person national championship team in 2009, both shared their thoughts on Tuesday’s debate with the Journal-World. And both gave Obama the edge.

Bricker, who is now a doctoral student in communications studies at KU and aims to be a debate coach in the future, said Obama put on a much better performance than he did during the first presidential debate earlier this month, displaying broader preparation and a willingness to take some jabs at Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

“It was in many ways a very different Obama,” Bricker said.

Harris, too, said Obama turned things around Tuesday. But he said it was more of a slight edge, compared with Romney’s more decisive victory in the first debate.

“I think it’s a fairly close debate, and I think they both do a fairly good job of getting the points that they want to across on their main issues,” Harris said.

Both said that Obama shined during a discussion on the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, last month. His serious tone and personal response to Romney’s suggestion that the administration may have misled the public about the attacks made for a strong moment, Harris said.

“I thought he had an aura of being presidential when he took the attitude of, ‘How dare you suggest that I didn’t value this?'” Harris said.

Both also gave Obama points for his criticism of Romney’s tax plan.

But they also said Romney was no slouch, and in a commanding performance earlier this month he had proven himself a skilled debater.

“Romney sounded like he could be a commander-in-chief,” Bricker said.

Harris said that the presidential debates had taken on a different character this year — one that he welcomed. This year’s events have more truly resembled debates, with back-and-forth exchanges and clear differences between the candidates. Past years’ debates, he said, have been closer to “joint press conferences.”

That tone may have been set by Romney in the first debate, he said. For that contest, he said, Obama showed up with prepared talking points, and Romney showed up ready to fight.

“One person was debating, and the other one was giving speeches,” Harris said.

But this time, Harris said, Obama appeared ready to go. And he may have been better suited to this debate’s town hall format, he said, which involved walking across the stage and interacting with questioners.

On Tuesday, Harris and Bricker both said they thought Romney performed stronger on the issue of energy.

Bricker said Obama talked around a question asking if his administration aimed to reduce gas prices.

“His approach to that question probably left a lot of voters wondering why they’re paying more at the pump,” Bricker said.

Bricker said he welcomed the increased back-and-forth seen so far at this year’s debates, as the candidates have accused each other of lying and defended their ground. That’s an improvement on the more passive nature of past debates, he said.

“I think it’s become clear that they don’t like each other very much,” Bricker said.

Harris also said the debates have proved themselves more relevant this year. And he complemented moderator Candy Crowley and the audience participants who asked questions at Hofstra University in New York on Tuesday.

Both Harris and Bricker, though, said that Obama and Romney might both benefit from following some of the rules that a collegiate debater would never violate: staying within their allotted time, and avoiding interruptions of each other or the moderator.

Doing such things likely doesn’t look good to undecided voters likely to base their choice on their general impressions of the candidates as people, Bricker said.

“I think they have a substantial effect on the way the average voter perceives a potential commander-in-chief,” Bricker said.

The candidates, he said, should focus less on having the last word, and more on simply giving the best answer.