The race for the Oval Office has shifted from merely blistering to white-hot angry after a second debate that saw President Barack Obama furiously reassert himself as a candidate ready to do whatever it takes to win a second term, presidential poise be damned.
Democrats who despaired after the first debate in Denver -- where, by his own reckoning, the president had been too "polite" -- glowed after a performance at Hofstra University in Hempstead, east of New York City that saw him taunt his rival, Mitt Romney, as an unreliable chameleon, shifty on policy and slippery on specifics.
Some highlights of the night, notably a charge from Mr Obama that his rival is ducking on how he plans to pay for a $5trn tax cut, will set the table for the days ahead.
"Governor Romney's sketchy deal -- you're going to hear a lot about that," top Obama aide David Plouffe told reporters.
Mr Romney, with a new torrent of advertising dollars, will further press home that Mr Obama has failed to deliver on his promises.
During the feisty 90-minute wrangle that saw arms chopping air, eyes burning and both talking over one another, Mr Romney, who had been riding improved poll numbers since Denver, dissected the president's first-term record, notably on the economy. "For me, I look at what's happened in the last four years and say this has been a disappointment," Mr Romney said. "We can do better."
But the narrative last night was all Mr Obama. The consensus of the punditry (including some on the right) and of snap polling was that he won on points.
The ouch moments were mostly Mr Romney's. He created a trap for himself on the recent killings in Libya, asserting that the president hadn't suggested the day after in the Rose Garden that it was an act of terror. He had, and the moderator, Candy Crowley, said so.
But Mr Obama's fighting rooster reincarnation may not have sat well with wavering voters, especially women.
But Mr Romney was possibly unwise to squabble with Ms Crowley on the rules and essentially to ask the Commander-in-Chief to hold his tongue. "You will get your chance. I am still speaking," he said, in a clash on energy policy.
There was a flicker of snide when Mr Romney replied to the charge that his wealth came partly from investments in China by suggesting that Mr Obama look at his own pension portfolio for China items. "I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours," Mr Obama retorted.
But on the $5trn tax-cut plan, the president drew blood: "If somebody came to you, governor, with a plan that said, 'Here, I want to spend seven or eight trillion dollars, and we're going to pay for it, but we can't tell you until maybe after the election how we're going to do it,' you wouldn't have taken such a sketchy deal, and neither should you, the American people."
Tellingly, Mr Obama seemed perhaps his most persuasive on the Libya killings. This bodes ill for Mr Romney, because the final debate on Monday will be mostly on national security.
"The suggestion that anybody in my team . . . would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive," said an indignant president.
(© Independent News Service)