Sizing Up the Presidential Debate: Round One to Romney

October 4, 2012 09:51 AM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

President Obama’s lackluster performance surprising to some

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While no one has labeled the performance by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney as a knock out in the first of three presidential debates, virtually all unbiased observers give him the edge over President Barack Obama. His attacks on the president were respectful but deft.

Was it a knock-out blow? No. Or to borrow from the approaching post-season in baseball, there were no "home runs" and no stolen bases in this first outing. But Obama received some body blows from a newly charging Romney.

Among uncommitted voters, 46 percent said Romney won the debate, versus 22 percent who said the same of President Obama, according to an online poll of 523 uncommitted voters conducted after the debate by CBS News. That poll found 32 percent said the debate was a tie.

A CNN telephone survey of 430 registered voters who were questioned after watching the contest handed an even more decisive victory to Romney: 67 percent said he won the debate, compared to only 25 percent who said the same of Obama.

The CBS poll also showed Romney making clear strides in improving his likeability, with 56 percent of those surveyed saying their opinions of him had changed for the better. He saw a huge jump – 30 percent – in the number of uncommitted voters who said Romney cares about their needs and problems. Before the debate, 30 percent agreed with the statement. Afterward, that number rose to 63 percent. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed said the same of Obama, up from 53 percent before the debate.

Former adviser to President Clinton, James Carville, speaking on CNN, said that he had "one overwhelming impression ... It looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there. … It gave you the impression that this whole thing was a lot of trouble." He added that "Romney had a good night."

MSNBC host Chris Matthews unloaded on President Obama’s debate performance and said the president endured a thumping from Mitt Romney. "I don’t know what he was doing out there, he had his head down, he was enduring the debate rather than fighting it," Matthews said of Obama after the debate in Denver ended. Matthews said the president let his GOP rival dominate the evening. "[Romney] had a plan. He was going to dominate the time, he was going to be aggressive, he was going to push the moderator around, which he did effectively. He was going to relish the evening, enjoying it." Matthews said the president passed up opportunities to attack Romney ending with, "Where was Obama tonight? What was he doing tonight? He went in there disarmed. He was like, 'I’ll wait an hour and a half, and I can get through this thing.' Whereas Romney … staring at Obama, addressing him like the prey. He did it just right. I’m coming at an incumbent, I gotta beat him, you gotta beat the champ, and I’m gonna beat him tonight. What was Romney doing? He was winning!"

Romney was the man on offense, and Obama on defense for most of the evening. While Obama spoke frequently in the abstract, Romney scored points illustrating his disappointment with the president's with stories of specific individuals. Romney went after Obama’s record and eviscerated him about the terrible economy. Romney clearly got a punch in when he said, "The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more — if you will, trickle-down government — would work," he said.

The Republican had a clear debate plan, including an aggressive frontal assault on the economic reality of the last four years. This is something Obama relegates to "the mess" he inherited and the hope and change that will finally arrive in a second term, adding that the crucial question is "not where we've been but where we're going." But Romney kept reminding listeners about the unpleasant facts about what the past four years have brought as a way of casting doubt on what four more years of Obama would be like. Romney didn't just criticize the Obama record, he went further this time and explained how his policies would improve the lives and economic prospects for middle-class Americans.

What appears to have happened is that those who are awarding the victory to Romney are doing so as he sounded presidential and he sounded moderate, unlike the Romney seen chasing the Republican nomination and accepting it in Florida earlier this year. Perhaps this is what most surprised people – including possibly President Obama – and have them viewing Romney in a more-positive light.

Was the performance of Romney the sole reason he has been dubbed the winner of this first of three debates? Not likely. President Obama came off as "flat" or uninspired by many accounts – labels given his ability to perform on a stage like this. Obama supporters openly wondered why he refrained from pressing Romney on his biggest vulnerabilities, such as his income taxes and his "47 percent" remark. And no mention of Romney's Bain experiences.

Limited counter-punching from Obama. While Obama again charged that Romney’s tax plan would deliver a $5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy and spend another $2 trillion on defense that the military has not asked for, Romney simply assured that was not the case and that he would not lower the burden that wealthy taxpayers are shouldering. He stressed that the middle class would see tax cuts under his plan. "Let me repeat what I said," Romney said. "I’m not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut. That’s not my plan. My plan is not to put in place any tax cut that will add to the deficit." That refrain scored one with focus groups of uncommitted voters.

One of Romney's better debate lines came when he told Obama, "Mr. President, you’re entitled to your own house and your own airplane, but not your own facts."

On some other key issues:

Health care reform, Obama said Romney has promised to repeal Obamacare on his first day in office, yet more recently has said he wants to keep some of its provisions, notably its protections for patients with preexisting conditions and the rights of young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance plans. Obama said that his law was modeled heavily on the health-care law that Romney championed when he was governor of Massachusetts. "We’ve seen this model work really well in Massachusetts," the president said. But Romney defended his plan in Massachusetts, saying he had not raised taxes and had pushed through the bill with significant numbers of Democratic votes, unlike the near single-party approach Obama and the Democrats used to get health care reform legislation passed.

In a clear attack mode, Romney accused Obama of decimating Medicare, of not meeting his promises to cut the deficit and of neglecting the unemployed. "I just don’t know how the president could have come into office, facing 23 million people out of work, rising unemployment, an economic crisis at the kitchen table," Romney said, "and spent his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs for the American people.

Budget deficits. Romney interrupted Obama as the president was detailing his economic plan to reduce the deficit through spending cuts and raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. "You have been president for four years," Romney said. "You said would you cut the deficit in half." Obama then said, "If we are serious, we have to take a balanced, responsible approach," bringing this counterpunch by Romney: "When the economy is growing slow like this, you shouldn’t raise taxes on anyone."

On energy, Obama said Romney would continue to favor tax breaks for the oil industry. Romney said that the Obama administration has invested more than $90 billion in green-energy projects, "about about 50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives" and that Obama "favored losers" when it came to energy policy.

On regulatory issues, Romney attacked the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which overhauled regulation of the financial industry, but he said that some regulations are needed and that he would keep them. Obama retorted, "Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate."

Tax cuts. After President Obama accused Romney of seeking to cut taxes on the wealthy, Romney counterpunched. "Look, I got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it. But that is not the case, all right?"

But overall, one needs to keep in mind a key from this and the future debates: These are not the forums where either candidate is "preaching to the choir" so to speak. In other words, neither will target their "base" as much as they will those independent or undecided voters in the middle. That’s where the aim of both men was on the first debate night and by measures of various political pundits, they succeeded. But again, the edge goes to Romney.

Democrats were surprised that their candidate did not take openings that may have been left by Romney on several topics. But Romney didn’t take the bait and espouse a more-conservative rebuttal to points made by Obama.

Bipartisanship. The way the two came off in the debate, it almost made one wonder why Democrats and Republicans haven’t been able to put their differences aside and reach agreement on plans and policies to get the US moving again.

Romney pledged he would immediately meet with both Democrats and Republicans and repeat his efforts in Massachusetts where he was a Republican governor dealing with a heavily Democratic legislature. But we have heard the bipartisan pledge before – from Obama himself and from his predecessor George W. Bush. And neither of those were really able to deliver on that in a broad sense. There have been some bipartisan successes in Washington, but the lack of bipartisanship towers over any triumphs.

Both candidates were trying to move to the middle. And they both did. But again, the appearance was that Romney made the journey or at least more of the journey than Obama did.

One tell-tale sign that this debate may have raised the anxiety level in the previously confident Democratic camp is that some even suggested Obama was trying to come off the way he did – sort of a rope-a-dope approach to lull Republicans and Romney into thinking he’s not going to jump into a major battle with Romney. If that is the case, it could be a dangerous route taken by Obama.

And there is the issue of expectations. Some are willing to concede that Romney outperformed better than Obama, but they are quick to point out that the expectations were so low for Romney, he could do little but improve. And conversely, the expectation for Obama given his abilities were potentially higher and why his performance didn’t see many award him the win. Their differences were there but at times were glossed over by the two candidates agreeing on certain areas. There weren’t the zingers, one-liners that are oft-repeated or the outright attacks that some had expected. From that perspective, the debate was overall a flat performance.

Of course, one debate doesn’t make the race move one way or another in a significant degree. And it doesn’t mean Romney is ready to do victory laps nor is Obama ready to read a concession speech. There are two more of these debates left and performance in this one won’t have been a knock-out blow. But it does set an interesting stage for the remaining two contests. Romney's challenge now is to build on his performance and keep the president on the defensive.

Bottom line: Romney appeared Presidential, Obama seemed tired from the demands of the job or for whatever other reason. Romney gave one of the strongest performances of his campaign, with some saying the best debate performance since Ronald Reagan in 1980. Obama's performance was listless. Romney showed a superior command of fact and argument than the incumbent, and made a clear, confident, optimistic case for change. But the most important thing Romney accomplished was that he finally defined himself rather than being defined for months by President Obama and the Democrats. For that alone, Romney won the first debate. And in doing so, undecided voters saw a different challenger than they've been reading about, or seeing on TV. The race is truly on.


NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.






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