Viewers riveted by feisty presidential debate
At the University of Cincinnati, 200 students were expected to turn out to watch the second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
But organizers hadn't reckoned on the intense curiosity as to how the president would perform after an admittedly lackluster showing in the first faceoff. The students kept coming, and row upon row of chairs were added at the campus center until more than 500 crammed in. It was not unlike a crowd at a boxing match; many were expecting verbal fireworks, and they weren't disappointed.
"It goes without saying that the knives were out," said Karim Aladmi, a 21-year-old international affairs major from Dayton, Ohio, who wore a suit and tie for the occasion.
"I thought Obama had a strong performance, but Romney made him work for it," Aladmi said. "I was actually impressed by both sides."
Across the nation, interest in Tuesday night's debate was high. Assessments varied enormously, and not everyone was satisfied with the give and take.
"I thought it was a very sloppy debate," said Joe Blizzard, 22, a chemical engineering major from Dayton. "They spent a lot of time cutting down the other person. As someone who is undecided, it was a little disappointing."
In Florida, another critical swing state. Romney supporters at a beer house in Coral Gables laughed and hooted when Obama brought up Big Bird — the public television character ostensibly endangered by proposed Romney budget cuts. And when Obama mentioned how he was raised by a single mother, one Romney backer exclaimed, "Oh, God. Here we go again."
At a nearby coffee shop, Obama supporter Cheryl Lyons watched the debate live on her laptop while wearing headphones. She described Romney as a "chameleon,"
"He doesn't know what he wants to be," she said. "I think Romney is trying to win young people and women. But I also think he says what people want to hear."
At a Coral Gables sports bar, 84-year-old Roberto Francois Carranta said he remained firmly for Romney, depicting him as "the next Reagan." The Obama administration, said Carranta, "is the greatest insult which has ever been perpetrated on the American public."
Romney supporters dominated at a debate-watch party at a casino in battleground Nevada that offered special drinks with political names and a debate-related drinking game.
While some in the crowd at John Ascuaga's Nugget hotel-casino in Sparks watched the debate intently, others caught an occasional glimpse while occupied at slot machines and blackjack tables.
Jerry Frey, 60, a third-generation Nevadan who got his start flying crop dusters and now has a small agribusiness, cheered on Romney and hollered at Obama, "You're taking our freedom away."
"People are realizing Obama is all talk, a good talker, a good speaker," he said later. "After four years, I trust Romney more."
Ballard Larsen, a retired union worker from Sparks, described the debate as "pretty much a draw" but said he came away leaning toward Romney because of the Republican Party's stance against new gun-control laws.
"I'm a union guy and Democrats are pro-union and Republicans are not, so I always give Democrats the edge because that's how I make my money," Larsen said. "But then again, I'm a 2nd Amendment guy and the Republicans are more pro-2nd Amendment and the Democrats are not."
In Colorado, another swing state, viewers included Robert Loevy, professor emeritus of political science at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
He rated the debate "largely a tie, with both candidates speaking effectively but also speaking past each other."
"If that is the case, then Obama is the winner because he needed to make up for his poor performance in debate No. 1," said Loevy, who expects the race to remain close both nationwide and in Colorado.
Professor David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, also suggested that Obama made up for his lapse in the first debate as he and Romney vied for middle-of-the road voters.
"It got tense and testy at times," Key said in an email. "When they were too aggressive with each other, it fires up their bases but alienates the undecided from the whole political process."
Emma Coleman Jordan, a Georgetown University law professor, said Obama "completely dominated this debate" while underscoring his fundamental differences with Romney.
"Gov. Romney continued to practice the art of smoke and anecdote to get away from a direct answer on a difficult question where his underlying position was unpopular," Jordan said.
Back at the University of Cincinnati, international affairs student Sierra Faler, 20, had been hoping Obama would improve from the first debate — and said she got her wish.
"He really came off more, for lack of a better word, aggressively, which is good," she said. "He was able to handle Romney very well, who I felt was more scrapping to find things to counteract him."
Sean Flynn, 19, a mechanical engineering major from the Cleveland area, enjoyed the back-and-forth enthusiasm in the big crowd, and said he came away with his support for Romney reinforced.
"President Obama didn't really answer many questions directly. I was pleased with Romney's answers," he said. "I think the polls are going to be close in the swing states. It could result in a very entertaining third debate."
Associated Press writers Dan Sewell in Cincinnati, Suzette Laboy in Miami, and Scott Sonner in Sparks, Nevada, contributed to this report.