Brian Williams opens NBC coverage by suggesting tonight’s a gut check for Obama–not Romney. Expectations creeping back up.

* Candidates seem to have agreed to switch tie color scheme.

* First-time voter sends “jobs” question right into Romney’s wheelhouse, though presumably BHO will mention efforts to reduce indebtedness.

* Mitt again prepped w/ Real Person story and Massachusetts factoid. Goes on offensive with weak point, college affordability. Then he does “help’s on the way” number.

* Obama doing the requisite mix of first-term accomplishments, second-term aspirations, and side-swiping Mitt.

* First Crowley follow-up to Mitt: long-term unemployed. Gives him chance to just repeat bashing of Obama on general economic conditions, then touting five-point plan. “Took bankrupt” weird phrasing.

* First sharp Obama rejoinder: “Just isn’t true!” “One-point plan”: tax cuts. Pretty clever segue into Bain record, and first connection to Bush. Covered a lot of ground fast. Voice notably high; guess that’s part of “aggressiveness.”

* Crowley doesn’t give Romney rebuttal time. Contrast from first debate.

* Blunt gas price question for Obama, classic low-information voter beef. Should have given brief answer and then expanded. Substance pretty strong.

* Romney does dirty-hippies-obstructing-energy-exploration number. Nice image of coal workers putting grimy hands on Mitt and begging for help. Remembered Keystone XL pipeline at last moment.

* Obama challenges Mitt’s veracity a second time. “What I’ve tried to do is to be consistent.” Think we’ll hear that some more. Not a single Obama reference to environmental impact of coal, oil, etc.

* “Not true, Governor Romney!”

* Mitt doing his Biden imitation.

* Man, the fossil fuel vote must be really big for Mitt.

* Mitt just set up big problem for himself if he wins by saying energy prices test of energy policies.

* Don’t know if it worked, but “sure, you can have low gas prices if you kill the economy” is cool attack line for Obama.

* Obama knows that Romney opposition to wind energy credit could be crucial in Iowa.

* Mitt wasting time he secured overriding Crowley.

* Pretty good question to Mitt about his phantom tax reform plan. Obama says “you’re doing great.”

* Mitt using exact same lines from first debate on “middle-class being crushed” bit. Does good job of laying out phantasmagorical version of tax plan. Crowley letting him go very long.

* Nice Obama reference to middle-class pain prior to Great Recession. Finally! A reference to Republicans in Congress! And then a reference to Romney’s own taxes. And a reference to Mitt’s primary promises.

* Very conspicuous Mitt reference to employment for women.

* Second Obama reference to Mitt’s taxes. “Sketchy deal.”

* Crowley cuts off Romney citation of “studies,” and tries to ask about Romney’s priorities if tax plan doesn’t work. But Mitt retreats to Massachusetts record, and attack line on Obama’s broken deficit promises.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.