Washington— Fight night at Hofstra. The two boxers, confined within a ring of spectators — circling, feinting, taunting, staring each other down — come several times, by my reckoning, no more than one provocation away from actual fisticuffs, of the kind that on occasion so delightfully break out in the Taiwanese parliament. Think of it: The Secret Service storming the ring, pinning Mitt Romney to the canvas as Candy Crowley administers the 10 count.
The actual outcome was somewhat more pedestrian. President Barack Obama gained a narrow victory on points, as borne out by several flash polls. The margin was small, paling in comparison to Romney's 52-point victory in the first debate.
At Hofstra, Obama emerged from his previous coma to score enough jabs to outweigh Romney's haymaker, his dazzling takedown of the Obama record when answering a disappointed 2008 Obama voter.
That one answer might account for the fact that in two early flash polls, Romney beat Obama on the economy by 18 points in one poll, 31 in the other. That being the overriding issue, the debate is likely to have minimal effect on the dynamics of the race.
The one thing Obama's performance did do is re-energize his demoralized base — the media, in particular. But at a price.
The rub for Obama comes, ironically enough, out of Romney's biggest flub in the debate, the Libya question. That flub kept Romney from winning the evening outright. But Obama's answer has left him a hostage to fortune. Missed by Romney, missed by the audience, missed by most of the commentariat, it was the biggest gaffe of the entire debate cycle: Substituting unctuousness for argument, Obama declared himself offended by the suggestion that anyone in his administration, including the U.N. ambassador, would "mislead" the country on Libya.
This bluster — unchallenged by Romney — helped Obama slither out of the Libya question unscathed. Unfortunately for Obama, there is one more debate — next week, entirely on foreign policy. The burning issue will be Libya and the scandalous parade of fictions told by this administration to explain away the debacle.
No one misled? His U.N. ambassador went on not one but five morning shows to spin a confection that the sacking of the consulate and the murder of four Americans came from a video-motivated demonstration turned ugly: "People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons."
But there was no gathering. There were no people. There was no fray. It was totally quiet outside the facility until terrorists stormed the compound and killed our ambassador and three others.
The video? A complete irrelevance. It was a coordinated, sophisticated terror attack, encouraged, if anything, by Osama bin Laden's successor, giving orders from Pakistan to avenge the death of a Libyan jihadist.
Not wishing to admit that we had just been attacked by al-Qaida affiliates, perhaps answering to the successor of a man on whose grave Obama and the Democrats have been dancing for months, the administration relentlessly advanced the mob/video tale to distract from the truth.
And it wasn't just his minions who misled the nation. A week after the attack, the president himself, asked by David Letterman about the ambassador's murder, said it started with a video. False again.
Romney will be ready Monday.
You are offended by this accusation, Mr. President? The country is offended that your press secretary, your U.N. ambassador and you yourself have repeatedly misled the nation about the origin and nature of the Benghazi attack.
The problem wasn't the video, the problem was policies for which you say you now accept responsibility. Then accept it, Mr. President. You were asked in the last debate why more security was denied our people in Libya despite the fact that they begged for it. You never answered that question, Mr. President. Or will you blame your Secretary of State?
Esprit d'escalier ("wit of the staircase") is the French term for the devastating riposte that one should have given at dinner, but comes up with only on the way out at the bottom of the staircase. It's Romney's fortune that he's invited to one more dinner. If he gets it right this time, Obama's narrow victory in debate No. 2, salvaged by the mock umbrage that anyone could accuse him of misleading, will cost him dearly.
It was a huge gaffe. It is indelibly on the record. It will prove a very expensive expedient.
Charles Krauthammer's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.