With the baseball playoffs and Monday Night Football to compete with, even free pizza and soda couldn't entice more than a handful of students to the Tulane University Political Science Department's viewing party for the final presidential debate. And, as appears to be the case with the vast majority of Americans, most came with their minds pretty well made up.
Tulane junior Brian Bickers' T-shirt made clear his support for President Barack Obama: “Bin Laden is dead. General Motors is alive.”
“Tonight is almost certainly not changing my vote,” the 20-year-old poli-sci major from Cincinnati declared as he waited for the debate to begin. That said, he postponed mailing in his absentee ballot until after Monday's third and final debate at Florida's Lynn University.
With polls showing Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a virtual dead heat, both sides were counting on the debate to pick up some stragglers – or at least solidify their bases. But in gatherings in swing states like Colorado and Pennsylvania, and at colleges in Louisiana and the coveted state of Florida, people seemed content to dance with the ones who brought them.
In Pittsburgh, about 50 people gathered at the city's Jewish Community Center for a debate-watching forum sponsored by J Street Pittsburgh, a nonpartisan group that seeks a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The aroma of fresh popcorn wafted from a festive wheeled cart, and American and Israeli flags hung from the ceiling.
Polls have shown Obama's support among Jewish voters slipping from four years ago. But this JCC crowd was largely – and loudly – pro-Obama.
There were hearty chuckles when, after Romney talked about the tumult in the Middle East, Obama rejoined that “a few weeks ago, you said our biggest geopolitical threat was Russia.” And several people oohed when the president said that when he visited Israel, “I didn't take donors. I didn't do fundraisers.”
“Romney is full of hot air,” said Naomi Frankel. “He keeps saying the same thing over and over, but with different sentence structure.”
Attorney Mark Frank, 63, was glad to see a more assertive Obama showed up for Monday's debate. He especially enjoyed the moment when the president responded to Romney's comment about the size of the U.S. Navy with a quip about how “we don't use horses or bayonets anymore.”
“I get the feeling the governor was suffering from a bit of the malaise the president felt in the first debate,” he said. “He (Obama) just seems to be more on target.”
Scott Morgenstern, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, who served as moderator of a JCC debate discussion, was disappointed that the peace process was barely mentioned by the candidates.
“It's an issue they purport to be concerned about, but not willing, perhaps in the context of the election, to talk about it,” he said. Overall, he said, “I don't think they differentiated themselves in any way that had not been made clear before.”
At Denver's Cowboy Lounge, about 50 people gathered for a Romney watch party cheered their candidate's performance, especially when the Republican steered the conversation to domestic issues. The crowd also whooped when Romney talked about unemployment and health care.
“I'd definitely say he's doing a better job,” said Shawn Dean, 22, a senior business major at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colo.
While the GOP crowd's attention strayed to the football game about halfway through the debate, the 80 or so Democrats at a Planned Parenthood shindig at the nearby Beauty Bar were glued to the contest in Florida – perhaps because they could win drinks and T-shirts for following along.
Many Denver Democrats were dismayed by the president's sleepy performance at the recent Denver debate. But there were grins of relief all around Monday night.
“This one I think he definitely did better,” said Marc Wren, a 43-year-old web developer. “He was just more outspoken this time, got some good jabs in there.”
But the challenger won over at least one Colorado Democrat Monday.
Watching from home, former deputy mayor Fidel “Butch” Montoya had been looking for a reason to stick with Obama. But Monday's debate pushed him into the Romney camp.
“I thought Romney was more realistic about the future,” said Montoya, 61, who held the city/county office from 1995 to 2000. “I thought the president spoke about the issues, but I thought Romney was clear – these are issues we have to confront, we can't ignore them.”
At the debate site in Boca Raton, Fla., hundreds of students gathered on a soccer field to watch the face-off on inflatable screens.
William Lopez, a 29-year-old accountant who watched the debate with friends who attend Lynn University, said Romney impressed him with his promise of creating millions of jobs in the U.S.
“It's a number that you can grab onto,” said Lopez, who voted for Obama in 2008. “I don't think the president has provided any information whatsoever about what he's going to give us.”
Andy Auger, 22, an international relations major at Lynn, said he wasn't sure which candidate could be called the winner. He still plans to vote for Obama, but said Romney acquitted himself well.
“I wouldn't feel bad if he does win,” he said.
For the first two debate parties at Tulane, several dozen students filled the plastic chairs and desks set aside to watch C-SPAN's broadcasts on a big screen. But on Monday, it looked as if Thomas Langston, the political science department head, might be eating cold pizza for the rest of the week.
Before the debate started, the professor encouraged the dozen and a half students to raise their hands if they heard something they liked, regardless of which candidate they preferred.
“We're doing kind of a reverse Joe Wilson,” he joked, referring to the South Carolina congressman who famously yelled out, “You lie!” during a 2009 Obama speech before Congress.
But every hand that went up was in support of Obama.
“No cross-partisan love,” Langston lamented.
Senior Jonathan Pick raised his hand when Romney answered a question about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The New Orleanian said there was nothing the former Massachusetts governor could say would persuade him to vote for him.
“Part of my continuing support for Obama is that I think the Republican party has shifted significantly to the right,” he said. “Over the past four years, that more than anything has turned me off.”
Besides, as a senior on the brink of entering the job market, he wasn't all that interested in either candidate's foreign policy stands.
“As long as I don't get drafted into the military, then foreign policy is taking a back seat,” he said.
Morgan Wolfe, a 20-year-old junior from Riverside, Conn., was the only Romney supporter in the classroom. Wolfe, who will be casting his first vote in a presidential election, said Romney's performances during the debates have only strengthened his support for him.
“At least Romney has stayed consistent throughout the debates in his claims about how he can change the economy, his general stance on foreign policy,” he said. “I like the idea that Romney is focused on Latin America, because I think Latin America has a lot of resources for us that are much closer than the Middle East.”
As Bickers, the student with the Bin laden/GM T-shirt, suspected, Romney said nothing to win his vote. But Obama didn't impress him all that much either.
“I wasn't blown away,” he said. “Even though he sounded strong on Libya, I feel like the rest of the president's remarks sounded a little too `stay the course.'”
It will be up to the pundits – and soon the voters – to decide who carried the debates.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/(hash)!/AllenGBreed
Associated Press writers Jesse Washington in Pittsburgh, Kristen Wyatt in Denver, Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans, and Matt Sedensky in Boca Raton, Fla., also contributed to this story.