Oct. 21, 2012: Presidential Debates Round Two: Obama didn’t repeat the first debate. But did he win?

After the second presidential debate, only one thing was clear: it was not a repeat of round one. President Barack Obama took the affair seriously, fighting back against Governor Mitt Romney in a stark contrast with the passiveness he displayed in the first debate. Many analysts and polls suggested that Obama a stole the advantage in round two thanks to a few Romney missteps, of which the most egregious was a mistaken claim about Obama's response to the Benghazi embassy attack. However, the reported win was, at the very least, less clear than Romney’s round one triumph, with Romney making several compelling points and imploring voters not “to settle” for the current economy.

With the narrower win in mind, the Obama camp has to be nervous about Romney’s momentum across the nation. While early vote totals have been quite high, suggesting an advantage for Obama in the November election — in recent years, more Democrats than Republicans have filed absentee ballots — the margin by which he leads those early votes is much smaller than the lead he held in 2008. With even major media outlets that supported Obama four years ago openly shifting toward Romney, the presidency may be within reach for the challenger.

Yet the polls at large remain perplexing. Most national surveys have the race at a virtual dead heat, with neither candidate leading by more than a few points. But the big outlier is the Gallup daily tracking poll, which has Romney winning by a massive 6% of the vote as of Friday. This would be easier to brush aside as a statistical fluke or errant methodology if not for the respect that Gallup commands in political polling. Gallup has correctly predicted the winner of all but three of the last 19 presidential elections, and as Republican strategists noted, no presidential candidate has ever lost the election after earning more than 50% of the nationwide vote at this stage of the campaign — as of Friday, Romney drew 51% of voters. Democratic analysts argued that some of the disparity may have been because Gallup tracks poll results in a seven-day rolling average, meaning that the Oct. 19 poll actually spanned Oct. 13-19 and may have retained the surge Romney experienced after the first debate even as he fell in other, more current surveys. All told, analysts are split between giving Obama a slight lead and saying that he is “spinning toward a loss.”

Focusing on tossup states instead of the nationwide trend hardly clarifies the tenor of this race. Major pollsters are listing as many as 11 states too close to call, with the majority naming at least eight clearly in play: Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Even states like Pennsylvania, which has clearly been in Obama’s column for months (and where Romney virtually stopped campaigning because the lead looked insurmountable), are now in serious doubt.

A few weeks back, Obama’s strategy was to hold Florida, Ohio, and Virginia as a three-state firewall, presuming that Romney would have almost no path to victory as long as the firewall stood. That firewall strategy looks to be abandoned now that Obama’s lead has all but evaporated and he is forced to contest myriad battleground states. After all, as of Thursday, poll aggregator RealClearPolitics gave Romney the lead in its electoral college map for the first time in the entire campaign, demonstrating that Obama cannot afford to rest of his laurels if he hopes to win re-election.

So it’s little wonder that electoral math is driving the final phase of the campaign and the rival candidates’ tactics in the home stretch. The final debate may be crucial, a surprising reality in this election given the comparatively small difference that the debates typically make. So with Monday’s showdown on the horizon, both candidates are stepping off the debate trail to prepare for their final head-to-head clash, leaving their running mates and spouses to fill the void across the nation.

In the meantime, if you were hoping that the campaign might get a little nicer in the final few weeks, too bad. Obama and Romney have done nothing to cease their crossfire of attacks — Obama is working to label Romney “not one of us” and saying that his rival is suffering from “Romnesia,” while Romney is chastising Obama for playing “silly word games” and saying that the incumbent is running on petty attacks without any plan to fix the U.S. economy in a potential second term, calling it “the incredible shrinking campaign.” With both candidates pushing harder and harder to spin every topic in their favor, is it any wonder to see some voters fleeing to third-party candidates?

Let’s move, just for a bit, to our sports headlines. In baseball, the New York Yankees are done for the year after Detroit routed them in a four-game sweep. Perhaps the biggest story for New York was Alex Rodriguez’s abysmal performance throughout the postseason which led to him being benched for several key games. A-Rod’s failure to produce in the playoffs incited even Donald Trump to say that he would fire the man who commands the biggest contract in major league history. (Yes, the $275 million he is set to make through 2017 is even more than the $240 million to which the Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols holds claim.) When asked whether or not A-Rod, who still has five years on his contract, would return to the Yankees next year, general manager Hank Steinbrenner responded, “We’ll see.

While the American League Championship Series quickly produced its representatives, the Detroit Tigers, as its representatives in the World Series, the National League Championship Series has been a back-and-forth affair. As of this post, the St. Louis Cardinals lead three games to two, forcing the San Francisco Giants to win the last two games in order to stay alive. But those games will be played in San Francisco, giving them a potential edge at the close of the series. St. Louis bungled its chance to close out the series at home, as starter Lance Lynn was pulled in the fourth inning of Game 5 after giving up four runs. The Giants went on to win 5-0 on a dominating performance from starter Barry Zito. Lynn’s failure to make it through the fourth inning has some analysts questioning whether he will start in the World Series at all, should the Cardinals survive. After all, the fourth inning has been unkind to him throughout the NLCS — in Game 1, he entered with a 6-0 lead and left with only a 6-4 margin, but St. Louis held on to win that game in his absence. If he can’t make it through four innings without giving up a flood of runs, the Cardinals have to seriously question whether they want him throwing on baseball’s biggest stage.

Hockey news has, depressingly, remained much the same over the past week. The NHL cancelled another week of games yesterday, pushing a potential opening day to Nov. 2. The stalemate between players and owners over their collective bargaining agreement may only grow worse in the coming weeks, especially if both parties continue hoping that the other side concedes instead of seriously negotiating.

Many had hoped that the NHL’s surprise announcement on Tuesday of its 50/50 proposal, which would have evenly split revenues between players and owners over the next six years, would serve as a starting point for real negotiations. Among those hopeful were executives and rank-and-file members of the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA). Yet after only one hour of further discussion, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman abandoned the negotiations, telling the media that the players union’s subsequent counterproposals a step backward. However, all three counterproposals maintained the 50/50 split as a centerpiece but were quickly rejected, leading some analysts to speculate that the NHL’s proposal was really nothing more than a public relations ploy to distract fans and combat growing frustration with the league. Either way, this Thursday looms large as the final deadline for an agreement in order to maintain a full, 82-game season, especially with Bettman insisting that the league has made “our best offer.”

Well, maybe hockey fans can at least look forward to “Project Lockout” this winter.

In the tech world, this week Microsoft offered an early look at its upcoming Windows 8 operating system, which will be released on Friday. Those who have tried the new OS are, well, confused. That’s no real surprise, as Windows 8 represents the biggest shift in a Windows OS in almost 20 years, harkening back to the revolutionary changes within Windows 95. But the new Windows 8 was designed as a one-size-fits-all OS, intended to be its PC, smartphone, and tablet software in one package. That’s why the system features rows of iPhone-like tiles for users to select instead of the familiar Start menu. While the rationale sounds reasonable, though, dismantling the standard computer navigation scheme and hiding other key elements like volume controls has some users perplexed. As one trial user put it, “I have an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old, and they never got used to it. They were like, ‘We’re just going to use Mom’s computer.'” User experience specialist Ralucu Budiu added, “There are many things that are hidden. Once users discover them, they have to remember where they are. People will have to work hard and use this system on a regular basis.”

Perhaps the most damning attack on Windows 8’s new look came back in March, when technology blogger Chris Pirillo posted a YouTube video of his father trying Windows 8 for the first time. In the four-minute video, Pirillo’s father — unassisted by his technophile son — managed to find his way into the old desktop interface and struggled to return to the tiled view that Windows 8 promotes. (Swiping the mouse or touch screen diagonally from the top right corner of the screen to the Start button switches the layout back to the tiles, a trick that the software did not explain and of which the user was unaware.) The four-minute video, which you can view below, has been viewed over 1.2 million times since it was first uploaded. The video was a live webcast, incidentally, so check out viewers’ sympathetic comments on the monitor in the background. And definitely don’t miss the last five seconds.

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, Friday also marks the release of the Microsoft Surface, the technology giant’s new tablet which eschews Windows 8 in favor of its Windows RT operating system. Windows 8 and Windows RT appear almost identical, aside from the fact that RT lacks the backwards compatibility necessary to run any existing Windows programs. That puts Microsoft’s sales staff in a bind, struggling to explain the differences to consumers in a way that highlights Windows 8’s backwards compatibility without making Windows RT look like a mess and still maintaining some enthusiasm for both new systems.

It should be no surprise that with multiple huge releases around the corner, this is a make-or-break week for Microsoft. Yet this odd attempt to crack the smartphone and tablet market has inspired very mixed expectations for the company’s earnings this quarter. With over 1,000 PC models already being produced with Windows 8, this move could either revitalize the company or further stymie its efforts to revive its slumping PC sales.

The Mars rover, Curiosity, has been busy this week with mineral sampling. Scientists have been anxious for this part of the mission, as the minerals on the Martian surface should provide clues about how the red planet developed and whether it was ever capable of supporting microbial life. But the sampling process was stalled for a bit while scientists analyzed bright flecks of an unknown substance littering the surface around the rover. It is already apparent that tiny pieces of Curiosity broke off during its journey, with most of the flecks likely falling from the rover during its descent from space. So after some initial sampling that researchers deemed suspect, the team navigated Curiosity to a location where the surface was free of the shiny material. If any bright flecks appear in the new sample, the team has judged that they must be part of the planet’s own sediment, since anything beneath the clean surface would have been undisturbed prior to the moment of sampling. They plan to fire a mineral-identifying laser at some of the particles within the next few days.

Hey, maybe we’ll learn that Mars was once part of our own planet, just as Harvard University scientists now think the moon was a chunk that broke off the earth. Who knows?

While Curiosity has been carefully scavenging for clues to Mars’ history, others approach the final frontier in a slightly different manner. Consider the case of Jossie Sockertopp and Sonnie Gustavsson, two native Swedes who traveled to Great Britain for their wedding this weekend. The couple made headlines on Friday for having the first authentic Klingon wedding in Great Britain’s history. Sockertopp and Gustavsson, both avid Star Trek fans, were inspired to hold the unique ceremony at the Destination Star Trek London convention after watching an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in which the Klingon Worf marries Jadzia Dax in a traditional Klingon ceremony.

Best of luck, you two. And remember, “DaHjaj mobHa’ tlhIH. DaHjaj tagh wo’.

A North Dakotan man made almost $10,000 earlier this week by selling a 20-year-old jug of barbecue sauce. No, there are no typos in that sentence. Mort Bank owned a few McDonald’s franchises in the early 1990s, and during that period, the burger giant held a Michael Jordan-themed promotion. “To jog your memory, the 1992 McJordan burger was comprised of a quarter-pound beef patty, cheese, mustard, onions, bacon and, of course, barbecue sauce.” When Bank sold his restaurants in 1996, he kept the unopened jug as well as a slew of other McDonald’s memorabilia, much of which he has sold over the years. But the barbecue sauce, clearly, was the prize in his collection. Bank’s eBay advertisement touted his jug as possibly the last in the world, and one rabid fan thought that “the rarest of rare Michael Jordan and McDonald’s collectible” was worth $9,995. While Bank says he hopes that the unidentified buyer won’t put the 20-year-old sauce on his burgers or ribs, it’s hard to say what someone willing to spend ten grand on that sort of item might do with it.

Worth $10,000?

Here’s a more heartwarming story for you. Kenya was the site of a life-or-death struggle recently when elephant conservationists at Amboseli National Park received a call about a baby elephant that was stuck in a five-foot hole dug by Masai tribesman. The baby was uninjured, but unable to climb out of the deep hole. Without help, the infant would have died in the well, which would have caused further problems in the region by ruining the well and angering the Masai.

The issue was further complicated by the baby’s mother, who deemed the team of conservationists a threat to her child and tried to sit on their Land Rover. Thankfully, the team’s resident scientist recognized the mother as Zombe from a mark on her ear, and a high-pitched yell was enough to scare her away. The rescuers then maneuvered their SUV around the mother and managed to tie a rope around the baby and the vehicle. 30 minutes later, the calf had been pulled from the trap, and it frantically sprinted back to its mother.

On Saturday, Israeli writer Edgar Keret unveiled an artistic installation in Poland which will also serve as his home when he visits Warsaw twice a year. The building is several stories high, but it more notable for being no more than five feet wide at any part of the structure. (Its narrowest point is only three feet wide.)

Dubbed Keret House, the structure, which was built in an alley, is the narrowest building in Poland and possibly all of Europe. It was designed by Polish artist Jakub Szczesny, and contains “a micro-kitchen, mini-bathroom, sleeping cubicle and tiny work area, all accessible via ladders,” according to Szczesny. So it’s probably still more spacious than some New York City apartments.

A few people have had some rather high-profile fun with fire in the last week. Anatoliy Baranovich, a 46-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, was napping on a Delta Airlines flight from Boston to Salt Lake City on Monday. When he awoke during the plane’s descent, he thought he saw the aircraft’s wing engulfed in flames. Baranovich started yelling in Russian, then jumped from his seat and ran to the rear of the plane, where he tried to open the emergency doors. The panicked man ignored flight attendants’ commands to calm down and fought off at least five passengers before he was subdued.

Evidently, Baranovich had been drinking prior to the incident, which might explain some of his irrational behavior. He was placed in police custody for interrogation, and at first appeared calm when officers interviewed them. Then they found $6,500 in cash and passports for 19 women in his luggage, and he again became agitated, eventually offering them the cash as a bribe to let him go free. They declined.

Baranovich is currently being held without bail, despite his lawyer’s pleas that this was a one-time mistake incited by his intoxication. As District Magistrate Judge Dustin Pead noted, Baranovich’s surprising access to both money and passports made him a substantial flight risk, so it would be foolhardy to release him before a trial. If convicted of damaging and disabling an aircraft and interference with a flight crew, he could face up to 40 years in federal prison.

Debra Johnson’s flaming folly was a little less dangerous, if a little more laughable. The 43-year-old North Carolina woman got mad at a 7-Up machine outside a Piggly Wiggly store after it took her money without dispensing a drink. So she kicked it, then lit a newspaper on fire and stuffed it into the machine. The vandalism melted parts of the vending machine as well as the $35 in change that it contained; the other contents, naturally, were also destroyed.

Johnson has several misdemeanors on her record dating back to 1989. She now faces two felony charges of burning personal property and burning buildings. As Johnson said in her first court appearance, she didn’t need a lawyer “’cause I’m guilty. I don’t need a lawyer to lie for me, cause I’mma tell you I done it.”

Want more criminal fun? Then you’ll love this story from Brooklyn. On Wednesday, workers at a 7-Eleven caught a man who was allegedly trying to steal a Snickers bar. 29-year-old David Golson tried to flee, but three clerks on duty grabbed him before he could escape. Then they did what must have seemed to be the most natural course of action: they stripped him in their search for the candy bar. While two of the clerks restrained Golson, a third tore of his shirt and pants, leaving him struggling in his boxers. Some bystanders laughed, while others yelled, “You are attacking him!” One had the presence of mind to capture a video of the incident, which you can view below. (Be forewarned that there is quite a bit of explicit language in the clip.)

Police eventually came and arrested Golson on charges of robbery, assault, criminal mischief and criminal possession of stolen property. He had an outstanding warrant at the time of the incident, according to the officers. The workers were not arrested for their actions, since Golson apparently attacked them and tried to knock over shelves before the amateur videographer started recording the incident. While none of the employees were arrested or charged, however, a 7-Eleven spokesperson said that she was “horrified” by the video. One of the three clerks was fired as a result of the clash, and the other two will be forced to retake a company training course.

Finally, we have the case of 61-year-old Colin Farmer, a blind stroke victim who on Friday was walking through Chorley, a northern town in Great Britain, to meet his friends at the local pub. Someone called to him from behind, commanding him to stop. Poor Farmer heard the angry shouting and thought he was about to be attacked by some local thugs, so he kept walking. And that’s when the police officer unloaded a 50,000-volt shock from his Taser into the slow-moving grandfather.

So why did the police confront Farmer? And why was he Tasered? Because the officers thought his cane was a samurai sword.

Seriously.

Run for it! GRANDPA'S GOT A SWORD!

It seems that the local police had received calls that a drunken man in the area was dangerously wielding a samurai sword, so they went looking for him, and thought that Farmer was their man. He wasn’t. And even as he pleaded with the officers, explaining that he was blind, Farmer found himself in handcuffs before they realized he wasn’t the sword-bearer they were seeking. They later arrested a 27-year-old who was indeed carrying a samurai sword and was suspected of being drunk and disorderly, but the man was released without any charges.

In the meantime, the officers who mistakenly attacked Farmer stayed with him in the hospital until he recovered, then escorted him to meet with his friends. Nonetheless, Lancashire police officer Stuart Williams apologized, admitting that “We have clearly put this man through a traumatic experience, and we are extremely sorry for that.” The Independent Police Complaints Commission has launched an investigation into the matter. I just hope that someone will remind the officers that the 1989 film Blind Fury did not take place in the streets of Chorley.

Other articles of interest:
France 24 TV: Cairo reporter ‘savagely attacked’
Okla. Girl, 12, Shoots Intruder During Home Burglary
Meningitis toll rises; pharmacy owners sued
Pharmacy will stay closed for Fed probe
Researchers discover secret of more precise carbon dating
Skeleton of French man found in bed after 15 years
Tenn. family used meteorite as doorstop for years
Shares Fall Sharply as Google Earnings Are Released Early
Ozzie Smith memorabilia up for sale
Namesake, mugshot mix-up lands Mexico cop in murder line-up
Florida man killed on boar hunt likely mistaken for boar, police say

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2 responses to “Oct. 21, 2012: Presidential Debates Round Two: Obama didn’t repeat the first debate. But did he win?”

  1. Tommy says :

    Loving the #Obamacare #Romnesia comments on social networking; a great bit of levity in the campaign and a clear energiser for the Democratic base, there will be some fallout for Romney over this. It may be a pithy bit of electoral work but the zingy comments coming from the Obama camp are getting the twittersphere (and other social networks: http://goo.gl/8FyZJ) all fired up.

    (Also – very excited about StarTrekLondon but bitterly disappointed I wasn’t able to get tickets!).

    • brianbritt says :

      I think you’re right about the social networking strategy, Tommy. It definitely seems like Obama’s plan at this point is to light up the Twitterverse with those zingers, hitting a demographic that has served him well in the past. In addition to some of the trends you mentioned, #bindersfullofwomen has also been getting a bit of play on Twitter, although not quite how I suspect Romney would have liked.

      The real question, though, is what impact social media activity will actually have. Those who have posted these memes are, by and large, not the undecided voters to which each candidate is desperately catering, and I wonder whether those moderates still carefully making their decisions are paying much decision to the one-liners. As you said, this might liven up the Democratic base and indirectly serve as a “get out the vote” effort for Obama, provided that a few catchy memes are enough to bring the election to the forefront of voters’ minds.

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