Mitt Romney: Have you looked at your pension?
President Obama: I don’t look at my check but it's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long. I don't check it that often.
Mitt Romney: Let me give you some advice. You also have investments in Chinese companies. You also have investments outside the United States, you also have investments through a Cayman's trust.
-- Exchange from the second presidential debate.
The most interesting moment in Tuesday night’s slugfest in Hempstead, N.Y. was early on when challenger Mitt Romney sent the incumbent president of the United States to his chair, and Obama sat.
Obama came out ready to fight, jaw-clenched and a bit overmodulated, but determined to show that he was not the sour, sullen fellow Americans had seen two weeks prior.
But when the two bulls clashed over energy policy, and Obama tried to keep the spat going by coming downstage and getting in the fray with Romney, the challenger pushed back hard and Obama returned to his corner. Obama would fight back later, but in the opening moments of the fracas, he saw his presidential prestige clearly punctured.
In the heavyweight bout on Tuesday, there were sure no knockouts, but there was lots of blood on the canvas at the end.
Polls show that viewers thought by a small margin that Obama had won the debate, possibly because he had a much better second half than the first half as the president cooled down and Romney got frustrated. Obama was also benefiting from the drastically lowered expectations set in the first debate.
But Obama did nothing to address his most serious problem: that Romney is now seen as a plausible president and the equal of the incumbent.
The same polls that showed Obama winning overall, showed Romney dominating in the most important categories: on the economy, on taxes and on the deficit. Romney was even judged by viewers to have won on health care.
The most telling number, though, was on “leadership.” CBS found that despite being judged the loser overall by 4 points among uncommitted voters, Romney beat Obama on “leadership” by a dozen points.
What the polls suggest is that while Obama may have been narrowly judged to have won the battle, Romney kept winning the war. And Obama’s Tuesday victory may have been a pyrrhic one.
There is much angst today over the folly of moderator Candy Crowley’s attempt to do a fact-check in real time on Romney’s attack on the president’s handling of the attack in Libya.
That may have been the time that the fact-check movement in journalism finally jumped the shark. Crowley summed up in seconds the reason it is a poor replacement for reporting. She subjectively interpreted a claim and then used her interpretation to hit a candidate. It was unfair and unnecessary.
Her failure was compounded within the hour when she told a fellow CNN anchor that Romney was actually right, she just thought his specific word choice was wrong.
And Romney was right. Obama had used the words “acts of terror,” to describe bad acts around the world and throughout recent history, but certainly hadn’t called Benghazi a terrorist attack. He called it a spontaneous uprising spurred by a Web video that was exploited by radicals.
Obama was standing on semantics, in that the word “terror” did appear in his speech. And Crowley decided to weigh in on his side. But when it’s even a close call, a real-time fact check seems way out of place.
(Power Play suggests that the days of moderated debates should be over and done with. The moment has come again for debates with a referee to keep time, but just the candidates interacting with each other in a pre-arranged format.)
But the folly of fact-checking aside, the debate was all about the clash between two men who very clearly don’t like each other and who did battle for 90 minutes.
Obama’s campaign laid out the challenge for the president as being to show that he could attack Romney, and he certainly did that – even using his closing statement to the nation to swipe at his challenger.
The real challenge for the president last night and for every day from now until Nov. 6 is to make Romney an unsuitable replacement. That has been Obama’s central campaign theme and it is too late to change course.
The gamble Obama took in his strategy of trying to disqualify Romney through character attacks was that if the challenger somehow survived into late October, there wouldn’t be a Plan B. Obama’s plan was to make the election not a referendum on Romney rather than on his term in office. But not considered, apparently, was what Obama would do if Romney was judged to have passed the test.
With 20 days to go, Romney looks increasingly plausible and voters remain unhappy with the condition of their country. The “kill Romney” strategy hasn’t worked, and the president is almost out of time.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“For Obama, the bar is rather low. He just has to string a few sentences together coherently to make eye-contact with a single sentient human, and show the slightest animation in his face. I think he can do that and he will be ahead of where he was and might win on that basis alone.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.