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.