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Associated Press
President Obama and Mitt Romney didn’t always wait their turn to speak during Tuesday’s debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Antagonistic debate exciting or just rude?

– This is presidential? They bicker, interrupt, talk over the moderator.

To some, the Obama-Romney rematch was squirm-inducing. But shedding some dignity probably won’t cost the candidates much. Since both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney came out swinging, neither was likely to claim a decisive advantage among viewers who thought the debate smacked of the wrong type of reality TV. And many backers who were already lined up on the two sides of the super-heated race were looking for a scrappy face-off.

“In the world of ‘The Real Housewives,’ everybody needs to turn over a table from time to time,” said Evan Cornog, dean of the Communications School at Hofstra University, where Tuesday night’s debate took place. “How good that is for the republic, I don’t know.”

The presidency isn’t a person, it’s an institution. And Americans traditionally expect presidents seeking re-election to maintain a certain level of decorum. Challengers get more leeway but still are expected to pay deference to the office of chief executive, if not to the man. Maybe that tradition is doomed in a conflict-addicted popular culture where even television cooking shows are “throwdowns.”

Can the notion of the dignity of office survive the era of flash analysis, when a phrase like “binders full of women” launches a thousand Internet jokes – while the debate’s still in progress – and campaigns spin the matchup into attack ads within hours?

The tone of Tuesday’s faceoff was embraced by Democrats who were dismayed by Obama’s dreary performance in the first of this year’s three debates. They had urged him to adopt a more brass-knuckles style.

When Obama stepped up to meet Romney’s hard-charging persona, the result was a presidential campaign matchup that stands out as one of the most rancorous on live TV, especially for an event in which the candidates were onstage with everyday folks, fielding their earnest questions. Whether that was good or bad, it was one of the most exciting to watch.

Romney turned to the president and posed his own accusatory questions, demanding answers. When Romney made a point, Obama would shoot back, “Governor, that’s not true.” Six times he declared Romney’s words “not true.”

Maribeth McCarthy of Alexandria, Va., said watching the back-and-forth left her wishing that moderator Candy Crowley could bang a giant gong whenever someone fibbed.

“I don’t understand how it’s right for people to call each other liars onstage,” said McCarthy, a vice president at a financial institution, who said she expects to vote for Obama but wasn’t happy with either candidate in the debate. “How on earth would we know who’s right?”

Texas A&M associate professor Jennifer Mercieca, who tuned in as part of her job, felt a similar distaste.

“Every time they would talk over each other or talk over the moderator, for me, it was cringe-worthy,” said Mercieca, who studies presidential communications. “It was unpleasant to see.”

Fidel “Butch” Montoya, a Denver pastor still mulling his vote, said the debate did seem less presidential, but he liked watching the candidates “going face to face, nose to nose.”

“I enjoyed it because I think too often debates are cold, a waste of time,” said Montoya, who’s leaning toward Romney but waiting for the final debate to make up his mind.

Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who wrote a book on presidential debates, said plenty of them over the years have been downright dull – and this one was lively, even when it ran over the scheduled 90 minutes. So there’s nothing wrong with turning up the heat a bit, he suggests.

“I think debates should be entertaining,” he said. “It’s political theater.”