People at home may remember Barack Obama and Mitt Romney circling each other like wary gladiators. Folks online are wallowing in Romney saying that as governor he wanted "binders of women." But on television Wednesday, most of the talk about the second presidential debate centered on the flareup over Libya—which is exactly the way the Republicans want it.
By attacking moderator Candy Crowley for inserting herself into the middle of that argument, the Romney camp is diverting attention from the fact that an energized Obama often dictated the terms of the argument and frequently put their man on the defensive.
Romney held his own most of the time, and polls by CBS and CNN showed the president eking out only a narrow victory. But as Bob Schieffer, who will moderate next week's faceoff, told me the other day, the team that is winning never complains about the umpires.
The Romney side may genuinely believe that Crowley overstepped her bounds. Yet by flogging the controversy—former governor John Sununu attacked her in the spin room at Hofstra University even before the debate was over—the GOP is keeping the spotlight on one of Romney's weaker moments.
When Romney slightly overstated the case by saying the president waited 14 days to call the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi an act of terror, Crowley did a brief bit of fact-checking. "He did in fact, sir," she said, meaning that Obama had cited terror in his initial comments on the attack.
Republicans contend that Obama referred only generically to "acts of terror." But is that kind of semantic argument going to persuade large numbers of swing voters to turn on Obama?
It's certainly true that the administration's shifting explanations on how the attack was organized and executed are a vulnerability. And let's say for the sake of argument that the Romney partisans have a point about Crowley—although she balanced her comment by saying that Romney had a valid larger argument.(The CNN anchor told The Daily Beast she was just trying to move the conversation beyond a wording dispute after the candidates got "stuck" on that point.) How, exactly, is this helping Romney get to 270?
After all, the former governor's strongest moments were when he described the economic failings of the last four years and how the middle class was getting "buried," a word he invoked several times.
Romney's weakest moments were when Obama threw him on the defensive over tax cuts, immigration, health care, contraception, investments in China, and the former venture capitalist's modest tax rate.
That is why the GOP camp keeps harping on the meaning of "act" versus "acts." The Republican nominee, who dominated the first debate in Denver, had a much tougher time on Long Island against an opponent who rediscovered all the attack lines he neglected last time.
There is, perhaps, a natural tendency to blame the ref when things don't go well. That's why some Obama lieutenants grumbled about Jim Lehrer two weeks ago, as if he were responsible for the president's sleepwalking performance. It also plays well with the Republican base to beat up on the liberal media.
But Crowley's single sentence didn't alter the course of the debate. And after this dispute burns its way through a news cycle or two, voters are going to be left with their impressions of who appeared stronger on that stage—and not care terribly much about the woman who sat between them.