They didn't seem to feel people's pain; they mostly tried to wound each other. At their town hall debate on Tuesday night at Hofstra University, President Obama and Mitt Romney circled around each other like tomcats in an alley, at one point doing a little dance of dominance as they clashed over energy policy.
But Mr. Obama kept his eyes on his Republican opponent, whereas Mr. Romney's gaze kept straying over to the moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, peevishly calling on her to give him more time and reverting to type as a man as passionate about rules and procedure as policy. He even asked her to intercede by calling her name three times, "Candy, Candy, Candy," a recall of a much-mocked moment in a Republican primary debate when he repeatedly asked Anderson Cooper of CNN to referee a dispute.
Debate results aren't just subjective, they are subject to the binary swing of expectations. This time Obama had only to improve on his first belly flop, and that set Mr. Romney up to fall short.
And Mr. Romney had more bad moments than the president, particularly when he challenged Mr. Obama's claim that he early on called the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a terrorist attack, and Ms. Crowley backed Mr. Obama's version of events. Mr. Romney stammered a bit after that, blinked as the president spoke and never quite got back on a steady, confident foot.
Appearance and manner counted, but the contrast wasn't really so stark. Both men are tall, slim and elegant. Mr. Romney inherited an aristocratic air; Mr. Obama is naturally regal.
But Mr. Romney can lapse into Thurston Howell-ese, referring to his accountant and making a $10,000 bet in a primary debate. On Tuesday night, he made another such misstep, acknowledging his wealth, investments in China and the Cayman Islands, by telling Mr. Obama that he should look into his pension plan because he, too, had such investments. Mr. Obama looked amused, saying: "You know, I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours, so it — it doesn't take as long."
When asked by a young woman what he would do about wage inequity between men and women, Mr. Romney explained how he made a point of seeking female cabinet members when he was governor of Massachusetts, even boasting that he had "whole binders full of women."
Mr. Obama has a habit of tamping down feeling with reason, giving long explanations larded with numbers and prosaic facts. He didn't really engage with the questioners and often lapsed into blue-book essay answers, but he found ways to make his policies personal, answering a query about women's pay by referring to the struggles of his single mother and grandmother.
In answer to a question about illegal immigration, Mr. Romney's effort to add a personal touch was more awkward. He referred to his father's being born in Mexico — to American parents in a Mormon expat community — and his wife's father's roots in Wales as the son of a coal miner.
Mr. Obama was more aggressive than in his first debate with Mr. Romney, but kept his cool and looked alert. Mr. Romney was even more belligerent than last time, almost rude, cutting off Mr. Obama in midsentence with the words: "You'll get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking."
Trying to attack an opponent in front of a town hall audience is a little like kicking down a door while holding a baby — it's almost impossible to do it effectively and safely.
Kind words are sometimes the most stinging. Mr. Romney has in the past stood tall by belittling the president as a well-intentioned man with misguided policies. This time, it was Mr. Obama who put down his opponent with faint praise. He said Mr. Romney was a good man, but one who behind closed doors thinks that 47 percent of Americans consider themselves victims. It was a point he was supposed to make last time and didn't; this time he closed with it and had the last word.