obama & romney (2nd debate)*Okay, liberals, Democrats and various other Obama supporters. You can breathe now. Go ahead, take in a big lung full of air and say “You’re gonna be okay,” Harvey Keitel-style.

President Obama clearly learned his lesson from the first debate – and from the smiling smackdown his oft-ridiculed VP Joe Biden put on the Ayn Rand / P90X aficionado Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan a few days before. He didn’t approach this debate in the same Walking Dead-zombie sleepwalk mode he did in Denver. On Long Island, he more resembled the Obama that everyone had voted for four years prior – aggressive while still being intellectual, taking the fight to Romney, while waiting for Mitt to stumble.

And stumble Romney did, in one of the more social media-friendly political screw-ups since Sen. Ted Stevens’ “series of tubes” comment. Romney’s awkward “binders full of women” remark – in addition to being completely wrong – immediately took the Internet by storm, prompting a wide array of hilarious images and must-follow Twitter feeds.

That one little statement represents a serious problem for Romney. It’s already been an embarrassing electoral season for the Republicans when it comes to dealing with the female electorate – epitomized by Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin’s downright disturbing “legitimate rape” comment from months ago. Tying in half of the population to plastic items bought for $10 at Staples couldn’t have helped in the least. Even worse, it came at a time when Romney had just started to make some substantial gains among the usually Obama-favoring women voters – gains that might be undone with that one comment.

So, where do the campaigns go from here? For Obama, his debate victory coupled with Biden’s staunch showing against Ryan helped to stop a worrying slide that had cut into his lead since the disastrous first performance. Even better, it helped to maintain his leads in the crucial swing states – Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa – that will decide the election. For Romney, it reopened some of the crucial questions about his campaign that had helped Obama build such a big lead before the first debate.

We’re at a crucial juncture in the campaign, with only a few weeks away for either candidate to make a real impact. There is one more debate, this Monday in the crucial swing state of Florida, this time devoted to foreign policy – an area where Romney could easily use the Libya disaster to hammer Obama.

Don’t expect this one to be pretty.