Commentary Magazine


Topic: presidential debates

Obama’s Attacks Fail to Hurt Romney

Throughout the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, President Obama acted as if he knew he was behind in the race. Indeed, listening to the two men throughout the 90 minutes, it often sounded as if he was the challenger trying to chivvy the incumbent into a brawl rather than the man asking the country for four more years in office. His goal was to try and brand Romney as a reckless extremist. But try as he might, he failed to do so. Despite interruptions and attempts to turn even the points they agreed upon into disagreements, Obama wasn’t able to throw Romney off his game or embarrass him. By contrast, it was Romney that looked and sounded presidential, avoiding issues that work to the Democrats’ advantage like Afghanistan and refusing to be ruffled.

Romney stated differences with the president on the Middle East and faulted the president for being late on Syria and Iran and for apologizing for America. But on the whole his goal seemed to be to appear as a credible president rather than a fiery Obama critic. Where Obama sought to have another night of nasty scuffles like those that dominated the second debate, Romney had another goal entirely. His point was to sound knowledgeable about the issues, to talk about ideas and principles and to strike a reasonable tone even where he had strong criticisms of the president. While the Democrats keep insisting the president is ahead, he acted as if he is losing and in desperate need of a knockout punch. The absence of such a blow mixed in with a few strong moments for Romney made for a frustrating night for the president and an outcome that would have to be scored a draw on points. Judging by the president’s demeanor, it looked as if he knew that wouldn’t be enough.

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Throughout the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, President Obama acted as if he knew he was behind in the race. Indeed, listening to the two men throughout the 90 minutes, it often sounded as if he was the challenger trying to chivvy the incumbent into a brawl rather than the man asking the country for four more years in office. His goal was to try and brand Romney as a reckless extremist. But try as he might, he failed to do so. Despite interruptions and attempts to turn even the points they agreed upon into disagreements, Obama wasn’t able to throw Romney off his game or embarrass him. By contrast, it was Romney that looked and sounded presidential, avoiding issues that work to the Democrats’ advantage like Afghanistan and refusing to be ruffled.

Romney stated differences with the president on the Middle East and faulted the president for being late on Syria and Iran and for apologizing for America. But on the whole his goal seemed to be to appear as a credible president rather than a fiery Obama critic. Where Obama sought to have another night of nasty scuffles like those that dominated the second debate, Romney had another goal entirely. His point was to sound knowledgeable about the issues, to talk about ideas and principles and to strike a reasonable tone even where he had strong criticisms of the president. While the Democrats keep insisting the president is ahead, he acted as if he is losing and in desperate need of a knockout punch. The absence of such a blow mixed in with a few strong moments for Romney made for a frustrating night for the president and an outcome that would have to be scored a draw on points. Judging by the president’s demeanor, it looked as if he knew that wouldn’t be enough.

Obama had a point when noted that Romney was sounding a lot more moderate than he had earlier in the campaign. On Afghanistan, Romney, Paul Ryan and many other Republicans have taken issue with the president’s decision to set a firm deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops since it means the Taliban need only hang on until 2014 before attempting to retake the country. But in Boca, Romney punted on the issue, conceding that there would be pullout. That may not be what most in the GOP think, but it shows that Romney knows that when an issue is a political loser he will bail on it. Most Americans don’t want any part of more fighting in Afghanistan no matter what the cost, and the GOP candidate signaled he has no interest in pushing the point. The same seemed to be true of the Libya terrorist attack. Having failed to make a dent in the president on this weak point last week, he seemed to concede that he could only do himself harm by raising it again.

But it should be pointed out that Romney wasn’t the only one looking to airbrush history. Obama speaks as if the first three years of his administration in which he fought constantly with Israel never happened. He sought to compensate for that with fervent rhetoric about Iran, but it showed Romney wasn’t the only flip-flopper on the stage.

That may sound like a waffle, but at times Obama overreached in his efforts to attack Romney. His attempt to score points with cheap shots about Romney’s investments in China fell flat. Even worse was his rejoinder to Romney’s criticisms about the decline in U.S. naval strength when the president compared U.S. naval ships to the horses the army used to employ. That may have gotten a guffaw from those ignorant about the military but, as even some of the talking heads on CNN conceded after the debate, that foolish jape may have cost the president any chance of winning Virginia (home to the largest naval port in the world) in two weeks.

It is true that for the most part Romney seemed to avoid strong disagreements with the president or to merely give slightly different takes on the issues while remind the audience of his strength on the prime issue of the economy. But I doubt that many Republicans were disappointed with his behavior. His approach seemed rooted in a belief that what he needed to do in this debate was not so much score points at Obama’s expense but to seal the deal with the voters and demonstrate that he was ready to lead the country. The first debate turned the race around because Romney showed he wasn’t the caricature that Democrats had painted him as being. The Republican’s thoughtful, low-key approach in the third debate only reinforced that key point. Based on the president’s reaction, it looks like Afghanistan isn’t the only point on which the two agree. Both seem to think Romney’s ahead.

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Has Obama Learned From His Mistakes?

The most effective argument for President Obama in tonight’s foreign policy debate is consistent with the one the Democrats have been using as their all-purpose cudgel against Republicans this year: George W. Bush. Bush has been the president’s alibi on the economy as he continues to blame his predecessor for the country’s troubles on his watch. But on foreign policy, naming Bush is an offensive rather than a defensive stance since it allows the president to label his challenger as someone who would repeat the mistakes made by the 43rd president. To a country that is weary of 11 years of conflict in Afghanistan and shudders at the memory of the conflict America left in Iraq, calling Romney another Bush and calling his advisors “neocons” who are his “puppet masters” may be an effective, if somewhat unfair and misleading argument. But the real question on foreign policy is not whether the United States will invade any countries in the next four years, since neither man is likely to do that. Rather, it is whether they can learn from the mistakes made in the last decade made by both of the last two administrations.

Romney’s inherent caution makes him unlikely to be trigger-happy when it comes to foreign interventions that are now seen in retrospect as unfortunate. But invading countries is not the only sort of mistake a president can make. While Romney will be careful not to fall into the traps that undid Bush, it remains to be seen whether President Obama is capable of learning from the mistakes he has made in office, especially in the Middle East.

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The most effective argument for President Obama in tonight’s foreign policy debate is consistent with the one the Democrats have been using as their all-purpose cudgel against Republicans this year: George W. Bush. Bush has been the president’s alibi on the economy as he continues to blame his predecessor for the country’s troubles on his watch. But on foreign policy, naming Bush is an offensive rather than a defensive stance since it allows the president to label his challenger as someone who would repeat the mistakes made by the 43rd president. To a country that is weary of 11 years of conflict in Afghanistan and shudders at the memory of the conflict America left in Iraq, calling Romney another Bush and calling his advisors “neocons” who are his “puppet masters” may be an effective, if somewhat unfair and misleading argument. But the real question on foreign policy is not whether the United States will invade any countries in the next four years, since neither man is likely to do that. Rather, it is whether they can learn from the mistakes made in the last decade made by both of the last two administrations.

Romney’s inherent caution makes him unlikely to be trigger-happy when it comes to foreign interventions that are now seen in retrospect as unfortunate. But invading countries is not the only sort of mistake a president can make. While Romney will be careful not to fall into the traps that undid Bush, it remains to be seen whether President Obama is capable of learning from the mistakes he has made in office, especially in the Middle East.

That apparent incapacity to learn from mistakes was on display this past weekend when the New York Times broke its story about an agreement between the administration and Iran for direct talks following the election. Both sides have now denied it, but the Times isn’t exactly backing down and I can’t entirely blame them for that. The administration’s ambivalence — the sources were all reportedly senior Obama officials — seems based on a justified concern that they were being caught showing some post-election “flexibility” that might undermine the president’s electoral hopes. But no matter how many denials are issued — and the Iranians can always be counted on to talk out of both sides of their mouth on such things — does anyone really doubt that the administration has been begging Tehran for such talks for years and is eager to strike some sort of unsatisfactory compromise with them that would allow the president to claim victory and then move on while the Iranians prepared to emulate North Korea?

This points out the president’s inability to understand that four years of comical “engagement” with Iran followed by years of half-hearted sanctions and futile efforts to persuade them to give up their nuclear ambitions have not worked. Even worse, they have convinced the ayatollahs that the president isn’t serious about stopping their nuclear program and can be counted on to go on allowing them to buy time with pointless negotiations until the day when they can announce they have achieved their goal.

Issuing “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear development would have showed that the president had learned from his mistakes, but his stubborn refusal to do so and his pretense that everything he has done has only strengthened his weak hand with Tehran doubles down on his errors. Though Romney is called a neocon for calling for a tough line on Iran, establishing America’s credibility on the issue is exactly what is needed after four years of weakness.

The Middle East peace process is another example of how the president seems to have no awareness of how his errors in which he undermined Israel helped encourage Palestinian intransigence and make a resolution of the conflict even more unlikely. The president’s inept response to the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist governments in the region also betrays no willingness to reassess a muddled record. As the Libya fiasco showed, merely killing Osama bin Laden is not only a poor substitute for a foreign policy, it also tells us nothing about the administration’s faltering response to a revived al-Qaeda.

Elsewhere, the president’s passionate pursuit of favor with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China yielded nothing but more contempt from these regimes. The president’s hot mic moment in which he promised to be more flexible with Russia stands as a clear warning of what a second Obama administration will do.

Romney is right to assert that America’s military pre-eminence must be maintained and that strength is the best way to avoid conflict, but it is also fair for to ask whether he has learned from Bush’s mistakes. An even better question is whether Obama has learned from his. Based on everything we have seen and heard in the last year, the answer seems to be no.

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Why the First Debate Was the Only One That Really Counted

Much of the country will be watching tonight’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida. Both sides are playing, as they have before each of the previous two encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney as well as the vice presidential tangle, the expectations game. And on an evening that will be devoted to foreign policy, both the president and his challenger are primed to exploit each other’s weaknesses and will hope to be proclaimed the victor by the spinners and the media. But if the polls are any judge, the odds are not much will be altered by the debate no matter which man comes off better.

Last week’s second debate was scored a clear victory for the president due to his livelier performance and Romney’s mistakes in the town hall format. But unless you believe the one outlier poll (Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll), there doesn’t seem to have been any bounce for the president as a result of his getting the better of Romney. That means that even if Obama can repeat the same trick tonight, with Romney continuing to blunder, it probably won’t make a difference. That leaves us with the question as to why the first debate earlier this month in Denver proved so decisive. Was it that it was really more one-sided for Romney than Obama’s win at Hofstra University? Though it was, that doesn’t seem to be the answer, since if it was just a question of a margin of victory then Obama would have gotten more out of the second debate than he received.

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Much of the country will be watching tonight’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida. Both sides are playing, as they have before each of the previous two encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney as well as the vice presidential tangle, the expectations game. And on an evening that will be devoted to foreign policy, both the president and his challenger are primed to exploit each other’s weaknesses and will hope to be proclaimed the victor by the spinners and the media. But if the polls are any judge, the odds are not much will be altered by the debate no matter which man comes off better.

Last week’s second debate was scored a clear victory for the president due to his livelier performance and Romney’s mistakes in the town hall format. But unless you believe the one outlier poll (Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll), there doesn’t seem to have been any bounce for the president as a result of his getting the better of Romney. That means that even if Obama can repeat the same trick tonight, with Romney continuing to blunder, it probably won’t make a difference. That leaves us with the question as to why the first debate earlier this month in Denver proved so decisive. Was it that it was really more one-sided for Romney than Obama’s win at Hofstra University? Though it was, that doesn’t seem to be the answer, since if it was just a question of a margin of victory then Obama would have gotten more out of the second debate than he received.

Rather, the answer has to do with the relationship between the way Romney came across and the way Democrats had campaigned against him for the last year. While the president’s sleepwalk through the first debate seemed to betray his contempt for the process as well as for his opponent, the real news there was that by coming across as a reasonable, intelligent and well spoken candidate, Romney effectively undid several months and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Democratic ads that sought to portray him as an extremist, hateful plutocrat who tortured dogs, killed factory workers and destroyed the lives of others more or less for fun.

For all of our intense attention as to who is winning the debates on points and how strong their arguments may be or how many mistakes they make, the real test of these evenings is whether the candidate comes across as a plausible president of the United States. Since so much Democratic effort went into painting Romney as implausible if not completely unsuitable for the presidency, his Denver showing made it clear that the Obama campaign had overspent on hyperbole that was easily disproved if not completely debunked.

As Woody Allen is often quoted as saying, 80 percent of life is just showing up. Romney didn’t just show up in Denver. He showed up and showed the country what he was: an intelligent, fact-driven technocrat with some strong convictions about the economy and limited government as well as an appealing personality.

Having established this, it doesn’t really matter if he screwed up the Libya question last week or even if he does it again tonight–though if he does it will drive his campaign, if not the entire Republican Party, crazy.

As with the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, the GOP candidate has destroyed the caricature that his opponents so carefully constructed. This hasn’t won him the election outright, since this close race can still go either way. But it does illustrate why the first debate will probably turn out to be the only one that really counts.

That shouldn’t stop Americans from watching the foreign policy tangle since it gives the country the opportunity to hear the candidates expound on the issues that are truly the primary responsibility of the president. But now that the American people know Romney is a reasonable alternative, it isn’t likely that anything he or Obama can say in Boca will change their minds.

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No Bounce for Obama Clouds Dem Forecast

The flood of opinion polls that are being published this week continues to provide a confusing picture of the presidential election. But there is one thing about them on which most people agree: President Obama does not appear to have gotten a bounce in the wake of the second presidential debate. Even the most optimistic of liberal pundits, such as the New York Times’ Nate Silver, whose “Five Thirty Eight Forecast” is still sticking with the president to win in November, concedes that it’s “hard to make the case that the polls have moved much toward Mr. Obama since Tuesday night’s debate in New York.” While he is hopeful that even a slight nudge toward the president could alter the race this late in the game, there’s little reason to believe this is the case. Nor is there any doubt that the only game-changing event in the last six weeks was Mitt Romney’s performance in the first debate in Denver. It was at that point that the polls started shifting in the Republican’s direction. Though Romney made a number of mistakes in the second debate and Obama put on a better show after a drowsy performance in Denver, the electorate was largely unmoved.

No debate bounce means it is even more unlikely that the third debate to be held on Monday in Boca Raton, Florida will move the needle much no matter what happens. Though each camp hopes for a rout for their man, Obama’s failure to gain ground after the encounter on Long Island means a bounce of any size for the president or Romney after the third debate is not in the cards. That’s bad news for Democrats who are still looking for something that will alter the direction of a campaign that has been steadily looking worse for them this month.

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The flood of opinion polls that are being published this week continues to provide a confusing picture of the presidential election. But there is one thing about them on which most people agree: President Obama does not appear to have gotten a bounce in the wake of the second presidential debate. Even the most optimistic of liberal pundits, such as the New York Times’ Nate Silver, whose “Five Thirty Eight Forecast” is still sticking with the president to win in November, concedes that it’s “hard to make the case that the polls have moved much toward Mr. Obama since Tuesday night’s debate in New York.” While he is hopeful that even a slight nudge toward the president could alter the race this late in the game, there’s little reason to believe this is the case. Nor is there any doubt that the only game-changing event in the last six weeks was Mitt Romney’s performance in the first debate in Denver. It was at that point that the polls started shifting in the Republican’s direction. Though Romney made a number of mistakes in the second debate and Obama put on a better show after a drowsy performance in Denver, the electorate was largely unmoved.

No debate bounce means it is even more unlikely that the third debate to be held on Monday in Boca Raton, Florida will move the needle much no matter what happens. Though each camp hopes for a rout for their man, Obama’s failure to gain ground after the encounter on Long Island means a bounce of any size for the president or Romney after the third debate is not in the cards. That’s bad news for Democrats who are still looking for something that will alter the direction of a campaign that has been steadily looking worse for them this month.

That is especially true since Monday’s debate will focus on foreign policy. Foreign and defense issues are the president’s most important responsibility but given the failing economy, they are not at the top of most voters minds this year.

Romney tends to flounder when talking about anything but the economy, but in contrast to his blunders on Libya that let Obama off the hook at Hofstra, it is probable that he will come prepared with pointed and accurate criticisms of the administration’s Benghazi fiasco as well its failures on Iran. President Obama’s only effective foreign policy argument is that Osama bin Laden is dead, but since Libya shows that Al Qaeda is alive and well that point doesn’t have as much punch as it did a couple of months ago. But even if it did, at this point it is fair to wonder whether anything said tomorrow night would have much electoral significance.

The race is still very tight and neither side has any reason to believe that it is home free or doomed. But the trend in the national polls, especially those that are not skewed by unrepresentative samples of the electorate, is in Romney’s favor. He has done less well in swing state polls, but even in those polls there appears to be a shift in his favor as Ohio tightens up and Florida, Virginia and North Carolina all look to be less hopeful for the president than they were only a few weeks ago. If this trend holds, that makes Obama’s chances for re-election look far less rosy than Silver’s optimistic forecast would have it.

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Obama’s Bad Luck: Last Debate on Foreign Policy Won’t Shift Race

Both parties agreed upon the terms and rules for the presidential debates. But right now, the Obama campaign has to be kicking itself for going along with a schedule that devoted the last of the three encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney to foreign policy. The Democrats have acted as if security and defense issues were a strength for them throughout the year, but it’s doubtful that the president thinks a foreign policy pitch is his best closing argument for the American people with only a couple of weeks left before the election.

That’s not just because the Benghazi terror attack has compromised the president’s stance as the man with an impeccable security record, but also because a debate that doesn’t allow him to deploy his class warfare and “war on women” themes is one that isn’t likely to help him pick up the votes he needs to secure re-election. Even worse, it gives Romney an opportunity to recoup his losses from the last debate in which he flubbed a question on Libya that he should have been able to use to hammer the president. While Democrats may hope the president repeats his aggressive performance from the second debate rather than his lackluster first debate, Monday night’s topic is a handicap that comes at just the moment when he needs a game changing victory to reverse Romney’s momentum.

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Both parties agreed upon the terms and rules for the presidential debates. But right now, the Obama campaign has to be kicking itself for going along with a schedule that devoted the last of the three encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney to foreign policy. The Democrats have acted as if security and defense issues were a strength for them throughout the year, but it’s doubtful that the president thinks a foreign policy pitch is his best closing argument for the American people with only a couple of weeks left before the election.

That’s not just because the Benghazi terror attack has compromised the president’s stance as the man with an impeccable security record, but also because a debate that doesn’t allow him to deploy his class warfare and “war on women” themes is one that isn’t likely to help him pick up the votes he needs to secure re-election. Even worse, it gives Romney an opportunity to recoup his losses from the last debate in which he flubbed a question on Libya that he should have been able to use to hammer the president. While Democrats may hope the president repeats his aggressive performance from the second debate rather than his lackluster first debate, Monday night’s topic is a handicap that comes at just the moment when he needs a game changing victory to reverse Romney’s momentum.

The Obama camp is acting as if the president’s bout of righteous indignation during the Hofstra University debate at the notion that he and his foreign policy team would “play politics or mislead” the public about Libya closed the topic for future discussion. It was a powerful rhetorical moment, but it won’t shut off discussion about the fact that that is exactly what he and his associates did. Having the third debate devoted to foreign policy helps Romney re-open the issue. It will allow him to argue that the weeks the administration devoted to claiming the murder of the ambassador was merely film criticism run amuck were closely linked to the president’s campaign theme in which Osama bin Laden’s death has been represented as a conclusive victory over al-Qaeda. Even if, due to Romney’s inept grasp of the narrative and moderator Candy Crowley’s intervention, Obama won the point on Tuesday night, he’s not likely to be able to squirm off the hook next week. The Libya incident’s political importance is that it dishes the president’s main foreign policy theme because it shows that the war on terror (a Bush-era phrase banned from use by the White House) is not over.

The foreign policy debate works for the president in one respect in that it will allow the president to continue running against his predecessor. Obama has spent most of this year running as much against George W. Bush as he has against Romney, and his pose as the man who ended the war in Iraq and will do the same in Afghanistan is a potential strength. This will force Romney to walk the same fine line on Afghanistan that Paul Ryan had some trouble with in the vice presidential debate. The GOP is right to argue that the pullout deadline set by Obama will hand Afghanistan over to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But Romney can’t speak as if he wants U.S. troops to remain there indefinitely since few Americans are happy about that prospect.

However, the next debate will also expose Obama to more criticism of his record on the Iranian nuclear threat. Romney should be ready to pounce if the president repeats anything resembling Vice President Biden’s wildly inaccurate claim that the Iranians are not enriching uranium for a nuclear weapon. This will also help Romney differentiate his position on the alliance with Israel, which the president has sought to downgrade by putting more daylight between the two countries’ positions on the peace process than on the Iran threat.

Yet while both sides will have opportunities to score points on Monday night, the topic will still deprive the president of issues on which he has a clear advantage over Romney. Without the ability to raise social issues or to take cheap shots at Romney’s wealth, Obama will find himself on equal ground with his challenger. Given the way the race has shift toward Romney in the last weeks and with no other major opportunity to alter the course of events before Election Day, that is very bad luck indeed for the Democrats.

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Even Moderate Mitt Should Talk About Religious Freedom

In the aftermath of the second presidential debate, Democrats are attempting to reboot the “war on women” theme that was the keynote for President Obama’s re-election campaign during the spring and summer. That’s being driven in large part by Mitt Romney’s “binders of women” comment, but it was also the product of the exchange at Hofstra between the two about insurance coverage of contraception. The president slammed Romney for opposing universal coverage of contraception under his ObamaCare bill, while the Republican claimed he wanted to ensure full access to it for all women.

Democrats are claiming this is another example of the new “Moderate Mitt” that has replaced the “severely conservative” candidate that campaigned in Republican primaries, and to some extent they are right. Romney was telling the truth in that he clearly does not oppose denying access to contraception to anyone, nor does he think that “employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not.” But he passed on the chance to explain to voters how the ObamaCare mandate infringes on the religious freedom of religious institutions and individuals, since it forces them to pay for services that violate their consciences and their faith. This was just one of a number of flubbed opportunities to hit the president on issues where he is vulnerable on Tuesday, but it reinforced the impression that in his desire not to offend moderates and especially women voters, he is willing to abandon the principles he campaigned on up to this point. Given the stakes that might be understandable, but the Romney campaign ought not to confuse the need to portray the candidate as a reasonable person that women can trust with a less laudable desire to fudge the differences with Obama on important issues. Romney should be speaking more about religious freedom, not abandoning the issue to the president.

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In the aftermath of the second presidential debate, Democrats are attempting to reboot the “war on women” theme that was the keynote for President Obama’s re-election campaign during the spring and summer. That’s being driven in large part by Mitt Romney’s “binders of women” comment, but it was also the product of the exchange at Hofstra between the two about insurance coverage of contraception. The president slammed Romney for opposing universal coverage of contraception under his ObamaCare bill, while the Republican claimed he wanted to ensure full access to it for all women.

Democrats are claiming this is another example of the new “Moderate Mitt” that has replaced the “severely conservative” candidate that campaigned in Republican primaries, and to some extent they are right. Romney was telling the truth in that he clearly does not oppose denying access to contraception to anyone, nor does he think that “employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not.” But he passed on the chance to explain to voters how the ObamaCare mandate infringes on the religious freedom of religious institutions and individuals, since it forces them to pay for services that violate their consciences and their faith. This was just one of a number of flubbed opportunities to hit the president on issues where he is vulnerable on Tuesday, but it reinforced the impression that in his desire not to offend moderates and especially women voters, he is willing to abandon the principles he campaigned on up to this point. Given the stakes that might be understandable, but the Romney campaign ought not to confuse the need to portray the candidate as a reasonable person that women can trust with a less laudable desire to fudge the differences with Obama on important issues. Romney should be speaking more about religious freedom, not abandoning the issue to the president.

Far from a minor point, ObamaCare remains one of the key points at stake in this election. If the president is re-elected, the legislation will be fully implemented. Opponents of the bill, among whom Romney presumably numbers himself, believe that the president’s efforts to impose this mandate unconstitutionally infringes on our first freedom — religious liberty — and must be stopped. If it is implemented it will mark a turning point in which liberals will be able to redefine religious freedom in such a way as to restrict to it the home and the church, but to rout it out of the public square.

It is vital that Romney show himself not to be the monster that is shown in Democratic attack ads. The first debate was important because it was the first opportunity for many American women to take a good look at the Republican alongside the president. The boost in Romney’s popularity among women was far more the result of their favorable opinion of him than the president’s lackluster performance.

Maintaining that momentum among female voters doesn’t require Romney to backtrack on ObamaCare or religious freedom. To the contrary, these are issues that are as important to women as to men. The idea that free contraception is the issue on which the female vote will turn is a liberal myth. Women won’t be threatened by a discussion that centers on the rights of believers so long as he makes it plain that he isn’t interested in stopping anyone from doing what they want in their personal lives. Romney’s failure to explain his differences with the president on the issue won’t help him win the women’s vote, or anybody else’s for that matter.

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Six Pitfalls in Town Hall Style Debate

Because tomorrow’s debate will be in a town hall format with audience interaction, it’s going to pose different challenges for the candidates than the last podium debate. Here are six pitfalls President Obama and Mitt Romney might run into:

1.  Getting too personal:

President Obama’s campaign has said he’ll be more aggressive in this debate, leading some to wonder whether that will play negatively in a town hall format. But an aggressive back-and-forth over policy can actually be a good thing; President Bush and Senator John Kerry had some engaging but heated exchanges at their town hall in 2004 over national security. The problem is when the attacks are perceived as bitter or personal, like Senator John McCain’s reference to Obama as “that one” in 2008. Obama comes in with a disadvantage tomorrow, since his supporters expect him to aggressively criticize Romney to make up for his lackluster performance last time. Unless he keeps the attacks funny and light, they could backfire on him.

2. Rambling too much:

Keeping answers focused and succinct is a good idea in any debate, but it’s particularly important during town hall debates because the faces of audience members are visible and the feedback is more obvious. Speakers often feed off the energy level of an audience, and a room full of bored people isn’t going to encourage a lively debate. Plus, high definition means that viewers at home are going to pick up on every yawn, glazed eye or baffled expressions in the audience. SNL mocked some of McCain and Obama’s rambling answers after their town hall debate in 2008.

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Because tomorrow’s debate will be in a town hall format with audience interaction, it’s going to pose different challenges for the candidates than the last podium debate. Here are six pitfalls President Obama and Mitt Romney might run into:

1.  Getting too personal:

President Obama’s campaign has said he’ll be more aggressive in this debate, leading some to wonder whether that will play negatively in a town hall format. But an aggressive back-and-forth over policy can actually be a good thing; President Bush and Senator John Kerry had some engaging but heated exchanges at their town hall in 2004 over national security. The problem is when the attacks are perceived as bitter or personal, like Senator John McCain’s reference to Obama as “that one” in 2008. Obama comes in with a disadvantage tomorrow, since his supporters expect him to aggressively criticize Romney to make up for his lackluster performance last time. Unless he keeps the attacks funny and light, they could backfire on him.

2. Rambling too much:

Keeping answers focused and succinct is a good idea in any debate, but it’s particularly important during town hall debates because the faces of audience members are visible and the feedback is more obvious. Speakers often feed off the energy level of an audience, and a room full of bored people isn’t going to encourage a lively debate. Plus, high definition means that viewers at home are going to pick up on every yawn, glazed eye or baffled expressions in the audience. SNL mocked some of McCain and Obama’s rambling answers after their town hall debate in 2008.

3. Failing to connect with the audience:

Town hall debates allow the candidates to personally appeal to the audience, and Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” ad lib at the first televised town hall debate in 1992 is the quintessential example. Neither Romney nor Obama really excel in this area, and in 2008, Obama was much cooler toward the audience than John McCain. That’s going to be a challenge for both Obama and Romney tomorrow.

4. Physical appearances are more obvious:

The age difference between Obama and McCain was never more obvious than at their town hall debate, because there’s no podium to hide behind and the candidates had to walk around and respond directly to audience members. Physical appearance probably won’t be as much of an issue tomorrow, since age hasn’t been a factor in this election and Romney and Obama are around the same height. But certain body language, and the way the candidates carry themselves, may be more noticeable.

5. Getting rattled:

Obama and Romney have pretty calm demeanors, but they’ve also both gotten rattled under tough questioning. Romney blew up after Rick Perry accused him of hiring illegal immigrants at one of the GOP primary debates last year, and Obama has been known to snap at aggressive reporters. The president also had difficulty hiding his personal animosity for Romney at the last debate, which could make him more likely to get flustered or annoyed tomorrow. Tensions also run higher in the less-formal format. Last week, long-time Democratic incumbent congressmen Brad Sherman and Howard Berman — who are locked in a competitive run-off — nearly got into a physical altercation at a town hall-style debate.

6. Not staying for the aftershow:

Reporters often interview audience members after the debate, so the candidates want to try to leave them with a good impression. In 2008, McCain was criticized for leaving shortly after the debate ended, while Obama stuck around posing for photos and answering questions. It’s a small thing, but it could make a difference in the post-coverage.

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The Presidential Debate Reality Show

Tomorrow night’s presidential debate and the one that follows the next week may be the only opportunities for either President Obama or Mitt Romney to score a victory at their opponent’s expense before Election Day. So it’s no surprise that both are viewing it as having the potential to help determine the outcome of the contest. It remains to be seen whether the president’s attempt to correct his lackluster performance in the first debate will lead him to overcompensate by being too aggressive. Another point to watch will be whether Romney will be as on top of his game in a town hall setting where he will have to interact with voters — never his strong suit — as he was in the first debate. But almost as important as these questions will be how many Americans will actually watch it.

The first presidential debate was the most watched presidential debate since the first 1980 dustup between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as 67.2 million watched at home on television with many millions more seeing it at hotels and airports or taking it in on their computers and tablets. Traditionally, the first debate always draws a bigger audience than the next two or the vice presidential debate. That was certainly true of the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan slug- and smirk-fest last week that drew only 51.4 million seeing it at home. Those ratings were not only lower than the presidential debate showing, but a considerable drop from the 2008 veep debate in which nearly 70 million tuned in to see Sarah Palin. If the same holds true for the Tuesday night event at Hofstra University, that poses the question as to whether anything that happens there can possibly be as significant as Romney’s triumph two weeks earlier. If so, then President Obama will have to do more than simply improve on his first debate. He will have to mop the floor with Romney to create the momentum switch he needs.

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Tomorrow night’s presidential debate and the one that follows the next week may be the only opportunities for either President Obama or Mitt Romney to score a victory at their opponent’s expense before Election Day. So it’s no surprise that both are viewing it as having the potential to help determine the outcome of the contest. It remains to be seen whether the president’s attempt to correct his lackluster performance in the first debate will lead him to overcompensate by being too aggressive. Another point to watch will be whether Romney will be as on top of his game in a town hall setting where he will have to interact with voters — never his strong suit — as he was in the first debate. But almost as important as these questions will be how many Americans will actually watch it.

The first presidential debate was the most watched presidential debate since the first 1980 dustup between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as 67.2 million watched at home on television with many millions more seeing it at hotels and airports or taking it in on their computers and tablets. Traditionally, the first debate always draws a bigger audience than the next two or the vice presidential debate. That was certainly true of the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan slug- and smirk-fest last week that drew only 51.4 million seeing it at home. Those ratings were not only lower than the presidential debate showing, but a considerable drop from the 2008 veep debate in which nearly 70 million tuned in to see Sarah Palin. If the same holds true for the Tuesday night event at Hofstra University, that poses the question as to whether anything that happens there can possibly be as significant as Romney’s triumph two weeks earlier. If so, then President Obama will have to do more than simply improve on his first debate. He will have to mop the floor with Romney to create the momentum switch he needs.

Obama’s problem is not whether he can improve on his first debate. He can hardly help doing so. But outright wins like Romney’s are actually fairly rare in presidential debates. It takes either a brilliant speaker who shows up an opponent (Reagan telling Carter, “There you go again”) or a candidate making an egregious gaffe (Gerald Ford liberating Soviet-occupied Poland) or not showing up looking either prepared or acting as if he cared (Obama). Even if he holds his own, Romney will have to screw up for it to seem anything like a real win and the GOP standard-bearer is too detail-oriented and focused to allow that to happen.

Yet even if the president is able to convince the media that he came out slightly ahead, if the audience for the second debate is significantly smaller than the first, it won’t be much of a victory. Even a spin avalanche can’t make it as important as the first debate if far fewer Americans watch it.

That said the widespread assumption that the second debate will be less of a big deal might turn out to be wrong. If there was anything that we learned from the seemingly endless string of Republican primary debates last winter it is that each of them helped build the audience for those that followed. Granted, the audiences were far smaller, but they were nevertheless significant, as the series of GOP debates became the nation’s favorite political reality show.

That lesson may not apply to a debate that appeals to more than the political junkies who regularly watch cable news stations. But given the fact that the first debate appears to have fundamentally altered the direction of the campaign, there is a chance that there may not be as significant a drop-off in the ratings for the second one as many expect. As with the GOP debates, the mere fact that the first one was not the usual draw will impel more viewers to watch to see if this week’s episode will have its own surprises. Either way, the size of the audience will play a major role in determining how important it will turn out to be.

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Romney Closes Likability Gap

Today’s Politico/GWU poll has Mitt Romney trailing President Obama by one point nationally, but leading by two points in the swing states. In even better news for the Romney campaign, Mitt’s nearly closed the likability gap with Obama:

Even as the head-to-head number held stubbornly steady for the past month, Romney improved his likability numbers. A slim majority, 51 percent, now views Romney favorably as a person, while 44 percent view him unfavorably.

The former Massachusetts governor had been underwater on this measure. In mid-September, 49 percent of respondents viewed him unfavorably. Going into the first presidential debate in Denver on Oct. 3, the electorate was evenly split 47 percent to 47 percent on what to make of Mitt. …

Obama’s enduring personal popularity has been a key reason for his political resiliency. But Obama and Romney are now essentially tied on likability: 53 percent of those surveyed have a positive impression of Obama personally, and 45 percent do not. The same number view both Romney and Obama strongly favorably as view them strongly unfavorably.

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Today’s Politico/GWU poll has Mitt Romney trailing President Obama by one point nationally, but leading by two points in the swing states. In even better news for the Romney campaign, Mitt’s nearly closed the likability gap with Obama:

Even as the head-to-head number held stubbornly steady for the past month, Romney improved his likability numbers. A slim majority, 51 percent, now views Romney favorably as a person, while 44 percent view him unfavorably.

The former Massachusetts governor had been underwater on this measure. In mid-September, 49 percent of respondents viewed him unfavorably. Going into the first presidential debate in Denver on Oct. 3, the electorate was evenly split 47 percent to 47 percent on what to make of Mitt. …

Obama’s enduring personal popularity has been a key reason for his political resiliency. But Obama and Romney are now essentially tied on likability: 53 percent of those surveyed have a positive impression of Obama personally, and 45 percent do not. The same number view both Romney and Obama strongly favorably as view them strongly unfavorably.

Likability was the one area where the Obama campaign had a reliable advantage throughout the election. The campaign invested much of its war chest in negative ads to drive up Romney’s personal unfavorables, and Romney may have negated all of that with just one (free) debate performance.

We’ll see this week if Romney can keep this momentum going, or if Obama can undo some of it in tomorrow’s debate. David Axelrod has promised that Obama will be much more “aggressive” tomorrow that he was at the last debate. But with Romney standing right there and able to defend himself, there are limits to what Obama can say. I can’t imagine he’s going to accuse Romney of being a felon or causing the death of a steelworker’s wife, like his campaign and supporting super PAC did over the summer. Attacking Romney’s proposed policies is one thing, but Obama may damage his own image if he stoops to more personal attacks.

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Obama Needs a Momentum Shift Now

Last week as Mitt Romney’s post-debate surge first took hold, Democrats comforted themselves by pointing to swing state polls that showed President Obama still holding comfortable leads that ought to have ensured his election. A week later, the fluctuating numbers in the key battlegrounds of Ohio, Virginia and Florida as well as several others that must now be considered up for grabs makes it obvious that the gap between Romney’s rise in the national polls and the outlook in the Electoral College has shrunk. The Democrats’ assumption that several important states in various parts of the country could remain comfortably in their grasp while Republicans gained ground in the national polls was illogical.

As the Real Clear Politics Electoral College Map shows, the president’s seemingly overwhelming advantage in terms of states that are solid, likely or leaning in the Democrats direction is evaporating. It currently shows Obama with 201 Electoral College votes and Romney with 191 with a whopping 146 in states where the average margin in recent polls is less than five percent for either candidate. But with Romney steadily gaining ground even in states that few serious people thought would even be in play, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, the ebbing confidence among liberals is justified. The question now is what, if anything, the president can do to reverse this momentum shift that appears to be on the verge of sweeping him out of the White House.

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Last week as Mitt Romney’s post-debate surge first took hold, Democrats comforted themselves by pointing to swing state polls that showed President Obama still holding comfortable leads that ought to have ensured his election. A week later, the fluctuating numbers in the key battlegrounds of Ohio, Virginia and Florida as well as several others that must now be considered up for grabs makes it obvious that the gap between Romney’s rise in the national polls and the outlook in the Electoral College has shrunk. The Democrats’ assumption that several important states in various parts of the country could remain comfortably in their grasp while Republicans gained ground in the national polls was illogical.

As the Real Clear Politics Electoral College Map shows, the president’s seemingly overwhelming advantage in terms of states that are solid, likely or leaning in the Democrats direction is evaporating. It currently shows Obama with 201 Electoral College votes and Romney with 191 with a whopping 146 in states where the average margin in recent polls is less than five percent for either candidate. But with Romney steadily gaining ground even in states that few serious people thought would even be in play, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, the ebbing confidence among liberals is justified. The question now is what, if anything, the president can do to reverse this momentum shift that appears to be on the verge of sweeping him out of the White House.

The most obvious answer is for Obama to be seen to beat Romney in either or both of the remaining debates. But, as history shows, decisive wins or loses in these affairs such as the one Romney scored earlier this month are the exceptions. So long as both men show up prepared, look interested (something Obama failed to do on October 3) and don’t make any glaring mistakes, it isn’t likely that either side will reap that much of a benefit.

There is the chance that some “October surprise” will pop up abroad that will reinforce the president’s status as commander-in-chief. Should some of those who assassinated the U.S. ambassador to Libya be killed or captured before Election Day, it may be that this will reinforce the Democrats “bin Laden is dead” theme and give the president the boost he needs even if that also prompt some “wag the dog” cynicism about the action.

But the Libya debacle illustrates that incumbency brings perils as well as advantages. It is likely that the president will spend the next three weeks continuing to try to dodge questions about what he knew about the consulate’s requests for more security and the fact that there was no demonstration about a video prior to the killing and when he knew it. Libya also contradicts the claim aired in his re-election ads that America’s enemies have been beaten.

This should encourage Republicans, but if there is anything we should have learned in the past two months it is that this election is not so easily predicted, as the pundits would like. The unexpected shifts in the polls after the conventions and the first presidential debate illustrate the fact that the nation is still nearly evenly divided. Romney has some more ground to make up in states like Ohio, where both candidates and their running mates are a constant presence. But unlike the situation earlier in the campaign when it was understood that it was Romney that had to act, now it is Obama who must find a way to alter the direction of the race.

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Debate Ratings Show Obama Picked the Wrong Night to Flop

The biggest difference between discussing the outcome of a sporting event and a political debate is that the outcome of the former is, or at least ought to be, objectively determined by the score while the latter is, almost by definition, a subjective judgment. Nevertheless, though debates are often muddled affairs with no clear winners or losers, some are fairly clear-cut in their impact. Wednesday night’s set-to between President Obama and Mitt Romney was one such encounter. The left-wing talkers on MSNBC, the establishment types chattering on CNN and the conservatives on Fox News all agreed Romney won hands down. But the post-debate pushback from Democrats has centered not only on disingenuous “fact checking” but on the idea that the debate either didn’t matter much or that the Republican’s superiority was a superficial effect that dissipates on closer inspection. But in this case the liberal spinners have a problem: the audience.

It turns out ratings for this debate went through the roof. The Nielson ratings agency reports that 67.2 million Americans watched the debate on television at home. That’s the second highest audience for such a debate in history (number one was the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980). And that doesn’t count those who either watched it in airports, hotels, bars or other venues or the many millions who watched it on their computers, tablets or phones. In other words, the president picked the wrong night to mail in his performance.

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The biggest difference between discussing the outcome of a sporting event and a political debate is that the outcome of the former is, or at least ought to be, objectively determined by the score while the latter is, almost by definition, a subjective judgment. Nevertheless, though debates are often muddled affairs with no clear winners or losers, some are fairly clear-cut in their impact. Wednesday night’s set-to between President Obama and Mitt Romney was one such encounter. The left-wing talkers on MSNBC, the establishment types chattering on CNN and the conservatives on Fox News all agreed Romney won hands down. But the post-debate pushback from Democrats has centered not only on disingenuous “fact checking” but on the idea that the debate either didn’t matter much or that the Republican’s superiority was a superficial effect that dissipates on closer inspection. But in this case the liberal spinners have a problem: the audience.

It turns out ratings for this debate went through the roof. The Nielson ratings agency reports that 67.2 million Americans watched the debate on television at home. That’s the second highest audience for such a debate in history (number one was the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980). And that doesn’t count those who either watched it in airports, hotels, bars or other venues or the many millions who watched it on their computers, tablets or phones. In other words, the president picked the wrong night to mail in his performance.

That means those who wish to convince the country that what they saw shouldn’t impact their opinions or vote must deal with the fact that most people will trust the evidence of their own eyes and ears over someone else’s interpretation. As today’s first round of post-debate polls show, the debate had a clear impact on public opinion and no amount of carping from the liberal media is likely to alter that fact.

There seems to be general surprise not only about the size of the audience but also about the idea that people take these things seriously. But anyone who paid close attention to the contest for the Republican presidential nomination won by Romney ought to have remembered how important the innumerable debates conducted over the course of what seemed an interminable race turned out to be.

Indeed, what was so remarkable about the debates was not just the way they seemed to shape the campaign but how large and influential the audience for these confrontations was. For several months, each debate helped build the audience for the one that followed, as they became what the country quickly recognized as a popular and long-running political reality show. The debates will be chiefly remembered for giving Romney the training he needed to prepare for Obama. But they also gave Herman Cain the notoriety he needed to sustain his ill-fated candidacy far longer than his meager qualifications or grasp of the issues should have merited. They gave Newt Gingrich a couple of brief moments on the top of the heap, boosted Rick Santorum for a while and also conclusively sank the hopes of Rick Perry.

Perhaps if President Obama had been paying attention to all of this, he might have taken the Denver event seriously enough to thoroughly prepare for it. But having failed to do so and then flopped, he must now deal with the fact that a considerable portion of the voting population can now compare him to Romney as easily as those who watched the last Super Bowl were able to judge the talents of the New York Giants and New England Patriots.

The Democrats may curse the fates all they like, but they can no more convince most Americans that Romney is the monster they claimed him to be now than can the supporters of the Patriots beguile the public into believing their team won.

The only silver lining for the Democrats is that the hubbub about Romney and Obama will likely help, as was the case with the GOP series, build the audience for the subsequent debates. That will give Obama two more shots at Romney. But having now confounded the Democrats’ attempts to define him, the Republican has already gained a victory that cannot be retroactively rescinded.

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Romney Debates His Way Back Into Race

Coming into tonight’s first presidential debate, the polls and most of the mainstream media were all agreed on the fact that President Obama was coasting to a win in November. But after more than 90 minutes on the stage in Denver, there was little doubt the campaign had changed. After months of gaffes, ineffective strategies and relentless pounding from Democrats, Romney had debated his way back into the race.

Despite being allowed four less minutes than Obama, Romney used his time to score point after point on the economy, entitlements and ObamaCare. The challenger looked confident, sure of his facts and able to connect with the viewers. By contrast, the president looked angry and offended most of the night, almost as if he regarded the need to defend his policies was beneath his dignity. The result was a lopsided debate that provided Romney with his finest moment of his long slog toward the presidency, while Obama suddenly looks very beatable.

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Coming into tonight’s first presidential debate, the polls and most of the mainstream media were all agreed on the fact that President Obama was coasting to a win in November. But after more than 90 minutes on the stage in Denver, there was little doubt the campaign had changed. After months of gaffes, ineffective strategies and relentless pounding from Democrats, Romney had debated his way back into the race.

Despite being allowed four less minutes than Obama, Romney used his time to score point after point on the economy, entitlements and ObamaCare. The challenger looked confident, sure of his facts and able to connect with the viewers. By contrast, the president looked angry and offended most of the night, almost as if he regarded the need to defend his policies was beneath his dignity. The result was a lopsided debate that provided Romney with his finest moment of his long slog toward the presidency, while Obama suddenly looks very beatable.

Democrats grasping at straws may contend that while Obama lost, there were no game-changing moments in the debate that will transform the race. But Romney’s use of the key phrase “trickle down government” to describe Obama’s approach to the economy was telling. So, too, was the spectacle of Obama smirking and refusing to look at the challenger. It not only conjured up memories of Al Gore’s telling sighs while George W. Bush spoke, it also gave the public an excellent idea of his arrogance. After four years of not being asked tough questions by an accommodating mainstream media, being confronted by someone who refused to take him at face value looked like it shocked and dismayed him.

Romney was the focused CEO presenting a coherent plan for his approach to government while reminding us of Obama’s failures. Obama was long-winded and rambled on almost every issue. He seemed flat and unprepared, lacking clear ideas about the economy other than his desire to tax the rich. Romney tied everything to his desire to create jobs and acted as if he knew the issues better than the supposedly brilliant president. Confronted with an Obama riposte about cutting education spending and oil company subsidies, Romney executed a neat slam-dunk by pointing out the vast sums the president had wasted on green energy boondoggles for Democratic donors.

One telling point was that President Obama’s presentation omitted the vicious personal attacks on Romney that have been the keynote of his entire campaign. But face to face with the former Massachusetts governor, he seemed to lack the will to use these attacks and it showed that without the smears, he hasn’t all that much to say about his opponent. That’s a crucial flaw, since the president doesn’t have much of a record to run on, as even he seemed to admit himself in his downbeat closing statements. But absent mention of the 47 percent gaffe or smears about Romney killing babies or throwing grandma over the cliff, Obama has nothing.

It should be stipulated that one debate doesn’t decide an election. Obama’s advantages with the media and his historic status as the first African-American president are still crucial. And it’s likely he’ll do better in subsequent debates. But a time when many were counting Romney out, he didn’t just win the debate but may have also debunked the notion that he couldn’t win the election. We’ll have to see how much of a bounce the Republican gets in the polls this week. It will also be interesting to see whether on the heels of this terrible night, the next monthly jobs report has a bigger impact on public opinion on the race than the September report.

But no matter what lies ahead, Romney has energized his base (conservatives will ignore the fact that he moved to the center on taxes because he gives them hope about victory in November), discouraged Democrats and showed for the first time in months that Barack Obama has feet of clay. This election is up for grabs.

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Gwen Ifill Preempts the Presidential Debate

Sure sign that President Obama’s media cheerleaders are worried about his upcoming debate performance?  Four days before the first debate, Gwen Ifill of PBS has an op-ed in The Washington Post downplaying the importance of . . . debates.  Or, as she puts it, “debunk[ing] five myths about presidential debates.”

Myth Number One: Voters use debates to decide.”

As Ms. Ifill explains, “Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates.”

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Sure sign that President Obama’s media cheerleaders are worried about his upcoming debate performance?  Four days before the first debate, Gwen Ifill of PBS has an op-ed in The Washington Post downplaying the importance of . . . debates.  Or, as she puts it, “debunk[ing] five myths about presidential debates.”

Myth Number One: Voters use debates to decide.”

As Ms. Ifill explains, “Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates.”

Her article consists largely of some pretty pallid pabulum, the tired clichés you might expect from a public television host whose expertise on the subject arises from her experience as moderator of the 2004 and 2008 vice presidential debates.  The moderator shouldn’t argue with the debaters, for example; the candidates don’t get to approve questions in advance; the best zinger doesn’t necessarily win a debate.  Yada yada yada.  Her point about the impact on voters of debates isn’t exactly hot news, either.  But timing is everything, isn’t it?

So, given that we all know that Mr. Obama doesn’t exactly shine without his teleprompter, and that Mr. Romney is pretty good in a debate, would it be too cynical to suggest that Ms. Ifill and The Post are engaging in a bit of preemptive self-comforting?

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