I will freely admit I did not watch the first Presidential debate live yesterday. I got up early Thursday (think 5:30) to watch it before I headed off to work. I had watched some network analysis for about an hour after the debate and many pundits concluded Romney won. What I did not suspect until I watched the debate was by how much.
It was obvious just by Romney’s body language he was going to come out of the gate strong and he did. His points began clear and concise and that did not change. For the first 15 to 20 minutes Obama appeared to hold his own. But then something changed. I am not sure what but Obama began to look tired, irritated, deflated and confused all at once (not an easy feat).
Obama’s attacks on Romney were easily deflected and Romney drove home his attacks on the President in a respectiful but firm way. He politely talked over the moderator, at times, to get his points across. For the record I thought Jim Lehrer did a credible job with an extremely rigid and stupid format.
Pre-debate the press had seemed to center on two themes. First, Romney’s campaign was flailing and his back was against the wall. He had to do something about it by winning the debate. Second, the media placed unusually high expectations on the President. Indeed, polls taken before the debate showed the public thought Obama was a better debater than Romney. Oh how that view has likely changed.
Getting back to the debate Romney did four things in the debate (beyond winning) that I thought were crucial for his campaign. First, he showed command of the issues in a way his stump campaign speeches have not. Second, he showed a more moderate and bipartisan side to the general electorate than they have seen portrayed in ads. Third, he humanized himself by mentioning time and time again the struggles of everyday Americans. For the President’s part, he waited almost thirty minutes to mention another human being. Fourth, Romney appeared presidential. His interruptions of the moderate and President were forceful, but not rude (as mentioned above). All in all a solid debate performance for Romney.
For the President there is little to be said that is positive. He started out well and then faltered badly. It was almost as if he fell asleep during the debate and by the time he woke up it was too late. He had no clear responses to attacks and his focus on Mitt Romney’s mythical $7 trillion budget deficit over four years was laughable.
For the President this poses big issues going forward. He effectively blew his advantage in terms of presidential character and his command of the issues appeared lacking. Voters seem to have firmly settled into ideological and partisan camps, but voters are also driven to other characteristics if they split on the issues. Obama seemed to have the edge with many of these voters (moderates or independents) heading into the debate on substance, style and leadership points. Does he still now?
But do not just take my word for it. Look at the views of other prominent liberals and Democrats on the debate. Joe Klein, writing for the Swampland, said Obama’s performance was “inept.” Renowned and sexist liberal Bill Maher said that “Obama needed a teleprompter.” Political analyst William Galston at the Huffington Post said he expects a Romney bounce. All this points to the fact the President ceded a huge advantage in the debate last night.
Can we say “Mitt Romney, the comeback kid?” Because Romney sure looked like one Wednesday evening.