(CNN) -- Ahead of Tuesday night's debate in Hempstead, New York, people wondered whether the town hall format, in which voters tend to place a premium on the appearance of civility, might limit the opportunity for attacks.
But niceness isn't an attribute that tends to top the priority list for most New Yorkers; it was clear from the first moments of the debate that both men came ready to brawl.
In Denver two weeks ago, the president pointed to areas in which he agreed with his opponent, allowing Romney to position himself squarely in centrist territory. He wasted precious minutes on long, winding policy responses, leaving most of the tweet-ready replies to his opponent. He missed obvious pushback opportunities and spent a good chunk of the debate on defense.
This time, every Obama answer was sound bite-laden and aggressive. And this time, it was Romney who whiffed on some easy pitches.
He struggled on defense. The Romney campaign began the year knowing that the key question for swing voters was likely to be how would his presidency be different than George W. Bush's? But Tuesday, it sounded a bit like the governor was answering the question for the very first time.
His response included an agenda -- domestic drilling, low taxes, regulatory reform -- that could have doubled for Bush's and a swipe at Obamacare. That left the task of defining those differences to President Obama, who got the chance for a Denver do-over on ideological framing, painting Romney as a candidate to the right of his Republican predecessor.
And he missed out on opportunities to go on offense.
The Obama administration has faced some tough questions over the past few weeks about the security provided to the U.S. diplomatic staff in Benghazi, Libya. And the president himself didn't have any fresh answers Tuesday.
But Romney let himself get caught up on a technicality: the question of exactly when the president had used the word "terror" to describe the incident.
Romney could have put the president back on defense by arguing whether his Rose Garden language the day after the incident had gone far enough or focusing on the overall effectiveness of the White House's response. Instead, the conversation got stuck on a bit of terrain where the president felt far more secure: exactly when the word "terror" had first made an appearance.
And Romney's reaction left voters with the impression that he wasn't familiar with all the facts behind his attack.
That's important because debates aren't just graded on substance; style counts.
Obama's first debate performance was poorer than it looked on paper because the note-taking, the hesitation and the downcast gaze all contributed to the impression of a candidate adrift. Romney only had a few moments where he didn't appear fully in command, a far better showing this week than the president had in Denver.
But he had more of those moments than Obama did on a night that marked the last, best chance for the two candidates to face off on domestic policy before Election Day.