All networks, Oct. 16, 10:13 p.m.
Despite its shockingly handsome Republican nominee and its pinup Democrat, the 2012 campaign was the least telegenic presidential contest I can remember. There were no mobs of young people, ecstatic and worshipful, as in 2008; no surreal scenes of dimpled and be-chadded ballots, as in 2000; no Bill Clinton, shrugging off adultery, or Ross Perot, shrugging off reality, as in 1992. For all his pomade and teeth, Romney managed to be the most repellent television candidate since Dukakis. And Barack Obama—we’d seen enough of him already.
So it’s fitting that the most memorable TV moment of the presidential campaign belonged to neither candidate. In retrospect (and at Nate Silver’s house), the second presidential debate probably didn’t change the election results very much, but at the time it seemed like the campaign hung in the balance. Romney, having cuffed and clawed Obama like a cat with a mouse in the first debate, was finally surging. Meanwhile, Democrats were panicking that their candidate wasn’t trying hard, and that he couldn’t be bothered. For most of the 90 minutes, both candidates, preening and aggro, appeared to be running for douchebag-in-chief, each more of an ass than any man who doesn’t trade bonds on Wall Street should ever be.
Candy Crowley of CNN handled the unenviable job of moderating this jerk-fest very capably, politely and firmly steering Romney and Obama back to their neutral corners. Then, three-quarters of the way through the debate, Crowley gave us the most important televised moment of the campaign. Romney had launched a full frontal assault against the president’s handling of the Benghazi attack, and—either confused or poorly prepared—thought he saw an opportunity to trap the president on the question of whether he had called the attack an act of terror. Obama said he had done so the day after Benghazi. The president appeared taken aback by the vigor of Romney’s challenge, though, and didn’t persuasively rebut Romney when the challenger insisted that the president didn’t call it terrorism for 14 days.
At this moment, Crowley jumped in to save him. “He did, in fact, sir,” call it an act of terror, she interrupted. Obama, recognizing that he’d been rescued, immediately chimed in: “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”—winning laughs and applause from an audience that was supposed to be silent. Crowley provided the encore, adding immediately, “He did call it an act of terror.”
Romney’s most aggressive attack had been turned back, and in a humiliating fashion. He had shown himself unprepared, had left himself open to a devastating counterattack—all the more deadly because it came from the moderator rather than his opponent. Was this the event that lost Romney the election? Of course not. He found so many different ways to lose it. But at that moment you could hear the air start leaking from the Romney balloon, and it kept leaking until Election Day.