Initial presidential debates traditionally favor challengers who survived their party’s multi-debate obstacle course and benefited from months touring the country, meeting voters and absorbing their problems.
That’s been true from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, and it happened again Wednesday night in Denver, as Mitt Romney pressed his main indictments of Barack Obama’s presidency, sometimes without serious challenge, and proved better at illustrating his points with specific examples.
Instant polls showed Romney the winner and indicated he may have made progress in overcoming his “likeability gap” against Obama. But he may have raised future openings for his rivals with numerically questionable details of his tax and Medicare proposals.
Going forward, the underlying questions are whether Obama and Vice President Joe Biden can blunt any GOP momentum in subsequent encounters and, more important, if the instant reaction signals a basic transformation of a race they were winning.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that, while Romney did well, Obama was an unwitting accomplice. The encounter was marked as much by the GOP nominee’s assertive, confident tone as by Obama’s inadequate responses — and his failure to press some of his best arguments.
“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, and spend his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs for the American people,” Romney said.
In responding, Obama never mentioned his first legislative initiative attacked the economic crisis, instead declaring he pursued health reform because health costs were crippling families and businesses.
“So we did work on this, alongside working on jobs, because this is part of making sure that middle-class families are secure in this country,” he said.
While Romney repeatedly cited such devastating statistics as the increased number of Americans on food stamps, the growth of the deficit or the 43 straight months with unemployment over 8 percent, Obama failed to respond in kind.
He mentioned the 5 million new private jobs created in the last 30 months only once. And he never detailed the number of jobs his auto company bailout saved nor Romney’s dismissal of the 47 percent who don’t pay income taxes, a comment polls show has been very damaging.
Basketball lover Obama seemed to be trying to play out the clock, and even many Obama allies conceded he was off his game.
“It looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn’t want to be there,” longtime Democratic strategist James Carville said on CNN. “I think he took Romney too lightly,” added former Obama aide Van Jones.
Some analysts cited a different factor. “He (Obama) had the classic presidential case of ‘no one has spoken to him like that in four years,’” author Jon Meacham said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “No one has tried to interrupt him in four years.”
Post-debate polls showed viewers rated the GOP challenger a clear winner. A CNN poll of debate viewers showed Romney the winner by better than 2 to 1 and indicated he gained twice as many of those changing their vote. It rated the two even on likeability. A CBS News poll of uncommitted voters gave Romney a 2-to-1 margin.
“You’re going to see a closing of the (poll) numbers,” said 2008 John McCain strategist Steve Schmidt, now an MSNBC analyst. “You’re going to see a reset of the race.”
That will certainly happen to some extent, but history is inconclusive on how it will end.
In the era of multiple debates, challengers Kennedy, Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush followed their initial successes by capturing the presidency. But only Clinton faced an incumbent president, and two who did, Walter Mondale and John Kerry, did well initially but ultimately lost.
Meacham said he was reminded of Mark Twain’s line, adding “The rumors of Romney’s political death were greatly exaggerated. But Twain still died.”
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by MCT Information Services.
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