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Americans who hoped the president of the United States would show up for a nationally televised debate should feel good today.

Barack Obama, so widely ridiculed for a lackluster performance in the first debate earlier this month, brought it Tuesday, matching Republican challenger Mitt Romney point for point, at times even setting the challenger back on his heels.

With three weeks left before the election, Americans now have a better picture of the message that both candidates wish to send, the issues they think are important, the image of them they want voters to carry into the voting booth.

Both candidates, at times, behaved more aggressively than we might prefer of our highest leaders. People can decide whether it was proper of Romney and Obama to be so assertive, circling each other like prizefighters, talking over one another, ignoring moderator Candy Crowley, and at times brushing off questions put to them by the roomful of voters.

But the primary issue before the electorate remains the same. Are we more comfortable with Romney's centerpiece, a tax plan that, no matter how much he tries to argue otherwise, seems nowhere near coming into balance without significant tax increases on the middle class?

Or do we prefer Obama's emphasis of continuing with his own focus of growing the economy from the middle out, an approach that has been understandably denigrated as a failure to set a specific agenda for the next four years?

Incumbents are often seen to have the advantage in campaigns. They have the trappings of office and an advantage in the setting of agendas. But they also are hobbled by the fact that they have a record to defend, a record that is certain to be less than ideal, easily distorted but impossible to ignore.

Obama's defense of his own record of necessity involves reminding us of the historic economic mess he inherited and making the argument that the positively trending numbers on such things as private-sector job creation matter. But that can seem very weak tea in a nation were so many people — including some of those in the town meeting debate Tuesday — are hurting.

But Obama also had a strong point, which he saved for the end, of reminding America of Romney's horrid "47 percent" remarks. And the president was rightly indignant — enough to make his opponent seem somewhat rattled — accusing Romney of politicizing the recent violence in Libya when only he, as president, has the responsibility for sending diplomats into harm's way.

There is one more debate, next Monday, focusing on foreign policy. Then, it's up to us.

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