Debate watchers get a town brawl

Debate watchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, check out President Obama's performance Tuesday night.
Debate watchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, check out President Obama's performance Tuesday night. Liz Halloran

There will be blood.

Or at least a lot of aggressive walking and glaring, vigorous head-shaking and interruptions, all glazed with equal parts feigned respect and visceral distaste.

This season's presidential debates between incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama and his challenger, Republican Mitt Romney, including Tuesday's engagement, have evolved into base-rousing spectacles of their dislike for each other.

It's a development that Ted Jelen, who watched the debate on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, campus with a group of students, can't recall seeing play out so overtly in recent history.

"They simply do not like each other," Jelen, a UNLV political scientist, told more than 70 students who gathered to watch the debate over pizza in a tiered lecture room. "And I think that a lot of peoples' reactions [to the debate] will be about the level of civility."

The students? They reflected their young demographic: most Obama supporters, almost all registered to vote, largely ready to give the debate edge to the president.

"The president was more aggressive, and that's what he needed after the first debate," said Christian Bato, 21, a senior political science major and president of the university's debate team.

Romney's stumble on answering questions about Libya, Bato said, was the "damaging point in the debate for him."

One student wondered if Romney strategically flubbed the Libya question so he could come on strong during Monday's final debate, dedicated to foreign policy. Said a highly skeptical Jelen: "If that's the strategy, this guy shouldn't be a dog catcher."

Peppered with questions from the students — about candidate strategy, the town hall format, even whether war is more likely with Iran under a Romney or Obama presidency — Jelen and a pair of his UNLV colleagues, political scientist David Fott and debate program director Jacob Thompson, came up with these perspectives:

-- A student asked: How effective is it to create a bogeyman of China, a subject of the debate?

"It's red meat for both sides," said Thompson, in terms of the issues of outsourcing and the effect on the domestic economy, with appeal to the Democrats' union base and free-enterprise Republicans.

Said Jelen: "I think it's fairly effective," playing on xenophobia and providing an "ideal target for both sides."

-- On Romney looking more angry or exercised at times than Obama:

"People who aren't white males have a more limited range of acceptable responses," Jelen said. "[Obama] learned a long time ago there's something threatening about an angry African-American male. It's something Romney can get away with, but Barack Obama cannot."

-- A debate watcher asked: With both candidates not looking very presidential at times — looking pretty bad, in fact — how can they attract undecided voters?

Voters still undecided at this point likely aren't going to the polls on Election Day, said Fott. Jelen added: The key to the discussion now is "turnout, turnout, turnout," identifying supporters and getting them to the polls. The debate was about energizing the base.

-- On Romney's bad Libya moment, but Obama's problem, too:

"I think Obama is clearly running out the clock on this issue," Jelen said. The president didn't want to talk about the events leading up to the assassination of a U.S. ambassador and three others for one of two reasons: "Maybe it was screwed up so badly that it would be embarrassing, or he feels a conflict between his role as president and his role as candidate. As president, you always leave your adversary [in this case, Libya] a graceful way out."

Said Thompson: Obama had a presidential moment when he pushed back on Romney's criticism of the Libya events. It led the New York debate audience to break the no-clapping rule, applauding Obama's "pro-America, rally-around-the-flag" assertions.

-- "What's it going to take to get a third party?" asked William Miller, 45, who works in security for a hotel/casino.

Thompson: "An act of God."

Though Jelen, Fott and Thompson said they think the two candidates essentially tied on substance, they gave the style edge to Obama — perhaps because his performance stood in such stark contrast to the listless debate he turned in two weeks ago.

And they remained struck by the tone of the undertaking.

When a challenger (Romney) cuts off the president of the United States with a curt, "You'll get your chance," well, that says something about the proceeding, Jelen said.

"I'm not sure how people will react to that," he said, noting that there were plenty of bad manners to go around.

-- When asked, "Who won? And you can't say, 'The American public,' " Jelen and Fott responded in unison: "I wouldn't say that."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio.

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