They didn’t strip down to leotards and tights, but as President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney circled each other at the town hall debate Oct. 16, they looked like they were about to turn Hofstra’s basketball arena into a professional wrestling match—with CNN moderator Candy Crowley as the hapless referee futilely trying to muscle her way in between them before they tore each other apart.
Crowley held her own—though some conservative commentators may have thought otherwise—and the two presidential contenders managed to avoid an outright smack down, in turn treating the millions of Americans tuning in to one of the most intense political confrontations since 1980 when President Jimmy Carter and Gov. Ronald Reagan went toe to toe before a national audience.
When the 90-plus minutes expired, Obama and Romney were both on their feet, though the former Massachusetts governor seemed to be walking a bit stiffly and the current occupant of the White House was smiling more broadly. Indeed, he was still shaking hands, signing autographs and posing for photographs long after his Republican challenger had left the ring.
Democrats on hand in the media center next to the debate venue were ecstatic—they had reason to be, because instant polls declared Obama the victor soon thereafter— the Republicans who made the rounds in the spin zone were rather testy.
“I think the moderator did a lousy job,” said John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor and Romney advisor, who wasn’t pleased that Crowley had called out his candidate for inaccurately claiming that the president waited two weeks before calling the death of the American ambassador in Libya an “act of terror.” Sununu told the Press that he thought “Jim Lehrer was fine” in the first debate in Denver—certainly a view not held by Democrats, who wished he’d been more aggressive in correcting misstatements—particularly those made by Romney.
“Candy was right,” said Robert Gibbs, senior advisor to the Obama campaign, adding that Romney had been “extraordinarily wrong” and “looked like an amateur” in handling foreign affairs.
In the Hofstra debate—the school’s second, its first being in 2008 between then-Sen. Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain—the exchange over whether Obama had misspoke about the deaths of the four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11 was clearly the most heated. For more than a month Romney and his backers had tried to use the tragic killings as a wedge issue because the president has consistently outpolled the governor in regards to international affairs—such as his making good on his vow to hunt down Osama bin Laden—and they seem to believe that criticizing any aspect of Obama’s Mideast policy would do the trick. The president took umbrage.
“The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our UN Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” said Obama.
Whether Obama’s retort will stop the momentum Romney had reportedly gained from his superior performance in their first match-up remains to be seen. Romney won that one hands down because, as both critics and supporters said, the president “never showed up.” This time around he came out swinging.
At Hofstra, Crowley told Romney that Obama had “in fact” called it “an act of terror” when he spoke in the Rose Garden, prompting the president to proclaim, “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” That remark drew some applause from the audience inside the hall, who had been warned to keep their reactions to themselves until the debate was over.
At another point, Romney stood a few feet apart from the president and clenched his mic in his hand like a billy club as Obama tore into his “five point plan” as “such a sketchy deal…that voters shouldn’t buy into his sales pitch” that he could simultaneously cut taxes and raise defense spending without adding to the deficit. Crowley asked Romney if the numbers in his economic proposal added up.
“Of course it adds up!” he said indignantly, mentioning that he’s run the Olympics and the state of Massachusetts while Obama has doubled the nation’s debt during his term in office. “I know what it takes to balance the budget.”
In the spin room afterwards, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) discounted Romney’s assertion that he’d left the Bay State in such great shape.
“We know him better than anybody in America,” says Kerry, who lost his own bid for president in 2004. “He can’t even contest Massachusetts in this campaign. It’s unheard of that a former governor running for president can’t even carry his own state. And why? Because he lost 45,000 manufacturing jobs—twice the national average—because he left the incoming governor with a billion-dollar deficit, because the debt of our citizens became the highest per capita debt in the nation, because he outsourced jobs to India, because he raised spending in the state and the deficit went up. This is a man who talks about one thing one day, another, another. I don’t believe the American people can trust him and I think that’s what this debate showed.”
During the debate, responding to a question about equal pay, Romney touted his hiring record in Massachusetts, saying he had “whole binders full of women” to choose from.
Kerry told the Press he agreed that Romney had “hired some women in the cabinet,” but said the Republican’s relations with the state legislature “were very bad… Most of the legislators there will tell you he was aloof and distant. He carved out his own elevator in the [State House] and had state police guard it so only he could use it!”
Asked why Romney couldn’t win there, Sununu told the Press “that’s about the most stupid question I have ever heard, because Massachusetts only has 13 percent registered Republicans and in a presidential race the Democrats are going to go out and vote [their] party.”
Before the debate some national polls showed that Romney had edged over the president in recent days, and narrowed Obama’s margin significantly in the swing states.
“All these bounces are political Viagra!” exclaimed Robert Zimmerman, a prominent Long Island businessman who’s a member of the Democratic National Committee. “By that I mean, the bounces are short-lived, artificial and if they last more than four days, get a new pollster! That being said, this is an incredibly close race, and that’s why the Hofstra debate is so critical because it provides a chance for these candidates to define who they are and what issues they stand for in front of a very scrutinizing audience of non-committed voters.
“Suburbanites are the swing voting bloc in America,” Zimmerman added, “and New York suburbanites are suburbanites with an attitude!”
Here on Long Island, the idea that the Gallup polling organization could find 80 Nassau residents who hadn’t made up their mind about the election struck some as incredulous.
“I have a lot of friends who wonder how on Earth anybody at this point could be undecided but Gallup found them,” Gibbs told the Press. “I think they had good questions, and quite frankly I think they represent millions of people that have the same questions.”
“Suburbs are going to decide this election like they did the last six,” said Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra. “We know how the cities are going to go, we know how the rural red areas are going to go. It’s the suburbs that go back and forth between parties that are going to decide this thing. But not every suburb. It’s the ones in the six to eight states that are really still in play… It is fitting that this pivotal debate is in America’s first suburb, but it’s ironic that nobody within a hundred miles of here is going to cast a vote that’s going to affect the outcome of the presidential campaign.”
How the debate will affect Long Island is hard to measure.
New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a Long Island Democrat, said its price tag—Hofstra reportedly spent $4.5 million to host the historic event according to The New York Times but was helped substantially by support from alumnus and Board of Trustees member David S. Mack; police overtime will cost possibly up to $800,000, though Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano tells the Press he’s “very optimistic” grant funds will help offset that—could result in dividends of value for taxpayers down the road.
“The marketing value of putting Hempstead, Nassau County, Long Island and Hofstra on the map—you’re going to get dividends over time moving forward that will probably be hard to quantify,” DiNapoli said, “but I think are real and tangible and well worth the investment…”
Democrats even coined a new phrase that may forever ingrain the university in the annals of presidential debate history: “the Hofstra Barack Obama!”
“Long Island is swing-vote America,” enthused Sen. Charles Schumer, New York’s senior Democratic senator. “The questions were great!
“Whatever ground the president lost in the first debate, he more than made up for it here,” he added. “This is the Barack Obama that the American people wanted to see.”
“Romney did okay,” admits Jon Cooper, the former Democratic Suffolk legislator and a long-time Obama supporter, even in the 2008 primary when most New York Democrats were behind then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. “He probably did almost as good as he did the first time. The difference is that Obama was back. He was in the room this time! He knocked it out of the park!”
And he helped put the university permanently on the map.
The Press’ 2012 Presidential Debate News Team consisted of Timothy Bolger, Lindsay Christ, Jaclyn Gallucci, Rashed Mian, Spencer Rumsey and Christopher Twarowski.