The verdict is in—from David Brooks on PBS to Charles Krauthammer on Fox News to James Carville on CNN to Chris Matthews on MSNBC: Mitt Romney won the first presidential debate decisively.
The Republican presidential candidate was sharp, prepared and specific—at least more specific than he has been so far in the campaign. He responded well to the president’s attacks and even upped the ante on issues from jobs to deficits to health care to Medicare. He was passionate and in command of the facts.
A focus group of Colorado undecided voters led by Republican pollster Frank Luntz on Fox News—half of whom voted for President Obama in 2008– said Romney was decisive and showed leadership. On the other hand, they called the president’s performance “flat,” “weak,” and “not passionate.”
It was quite amazing to me, who has heard Romney speak in person several times and found him wooden, even robotic, to see him as the more passionate, caring candidate and President Obama as so listless.
“I think he was off his game tonight,” said Carville. “President Obama came in wanting to have a conversation…Romney came in with a chainsaw.”
The president did not deliver the knockout punch on Romney’s tax plan, which is full of holes. He did not bring up the video comments Romney made about the 47% of the population who consider themselves “victims.” He seemed to be pulling his punches throughout.
One candidate wanted to be there; one didn’t, said Carville. Romney prepared for months for this debate. The president appeared to be winging it; he crammed for a couple of days and took a break to visit the Hoover Dam.
Also, Romney had been through more than 20 debates in the primary season; the president did that, too, but four years ago. Also, he’s been in the White House cocoon for four years. It showed. He was rusty and remote.
A post-debate poll of registered voters conducted by CNN found 67% thought Romney won the debate; only 25% picked the president. And by 58%-37% they said Romney had showed better leadership qualities. (So did a CNN focus group of independent voters in Colorado.)
Can this be a game changer? I don’t know—the president built up a good lead through the summer and his campaign has eviscerated Romney over the past month. And debates historically have not transformed presidential elections. Witness John Kerry, who beat President George W. Bush handily in their debates in 2004, but went on to lose.
But remember, the economy was clearly recovering by the time of the presidential election of 2004 and unemployment was a lot lower. That’s why this election is so much more volatile.
Mitt Romney took a big step to turn around his campaign Wednesday night. For the president this should be a major wake-up call. He needs to decide whether he really wants a second term—and then he’s going to have to fight for it.