Mitt Romney brought his A-game tonight. At best, Barack Obama brought his C-game.
The governor was engaged, specific, detailed, and crisp in his answers. He had clearly done his homework and all of the preparation he went through--and let's not forget to give a hand to Ohio Senator Rob Portman for apparently being a better Barack Obama in practice debates than Barack Obama was in the real debate--paid off in a major way. There were times that I thought Romney might have been a bit too hyper and too dorky, and I wish that he looked at the camera more often when making his pitch instead of looking at Jim Lehrer. But overall, Romney took the fight to the president's doorstep and Barack Obama responded by confusing being listless with being presidential.
It is worth noting that the liberals aren't even trying all that hard to spin this as a win for the president. Jake Tapper reported on ABC that the Obama campaign was putting in very little effort--with only middling level staff--in working to convince him (and presumably, other journalists) to declare the president the winner of the debate. CNN has Romney as the winner of the debate by a 67-25 margin. No, that's not a typo. And mind you, these are registered voters; likely voters, who are more Republican in their makeup, may well have Romney as the winner by an even higher margin.
Equally revealing is the way that Obama supporters in the old and new media are reacting to the president's performance. Here, for example, is Chris Matthews losing his mind:
Clearly, the best way for the president to recover is to watch more MSNBC. Because nothing spells "comeback victory" like immersing yourself in an ideological cocoon, watching liberal cable pundits pontificate on the one million six ways in which Barack Obama is just so dreamy. Incidentally, the MSNBC reaction led to Candidate No. 1 for best tweet of the night.
Also losing it: Andrew Sullivan:
Look: you know how much I love the guy, and you know how much of a high information viewer I am, and I can see the logic of some of Obama's meandering, weak, professorial arguments. But this was a disaster for the president for the key people he needs to reach, and his effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look.
Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn't there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment.
The person with authority on that stage was Romney - offered it by one of the lamest moderators ever, and seized with relish. This was Romney the salesman. And my gut tells me he sold a few voters on a change tonight. It's beyond depressing. But it's true.
There are two more debates left. I have experienced many times the feeling that Obama just isn't in it, that he's on the ropes and not fighting back, and then he pulls it out. He got a little better over time tonight. But he pulled every punch. Maybe the next two will undo some of the damage. But I have to say I think it was extensive.
We knew Mitt Romney would be prepared – his campaign has had him doing only one rally per day most days, spending hours and hours on debate prep. From watching the primaries, we knew Romney would come out and be aggressive and generally look good, but we have also seen Romney be stiff, or awkward, or turn to the moderator when attacked. Not tonight.
The “zingers” line appeared to be a bit of chaff; Romney did offer a few good lines — “You don’t pick the winners and losers, you just pick the losers”, “trickle-down government” — but he never seemed to force them or shoehorn them into lines. (George H.W. Bush declaring, “that last answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor struck me as the gold standard for a forced zinger.) Instead, Romney looked like he had done this before. Maybe he practiced with Rob Portman so much, he felt like he had. He was prepared on every Obama attack, that he could maneuver Obama into talking about his preferred topics – how much time did Obama spend on IPAB? How much time did Obama spend making implausible claims he’s going to get to reducing the deficit really soon? — and Romney demonstrated that he knew these issues, in detail, backwards and forwards.
Early on, Obama said, “I want to talk about the values behind Social Security” – and it was revealing that Obama wanted the topic to be on the warm and fuzzy feelings about the subject, instead of the numbers, the long-term solvency, the details of the reform proposals. He looked like a student who hadn’t done the readings and who wanted to desperately steer it towards a previous chapter.
As Geraghty notes, we heard nothing about the 47%, nothing about tax returns and nothing about how awful Bain Capital supposedly was/is. I will add that we also heard nothing about Mitt Romney shipping jobs to China. Geraghty speculates that this is because the president didn't want to repeat those attacks to Mitt Romney's face. I certainly believe that they will be repeated in the next debates and I think that the reason why we heard nothing about them tonight is because the president was completely off his game.
So what when wrong for Obama? Let's count the ways.
First, Obama brought his stump speech to the debate. This was the single worst decision the President made in preparing for tonight, because his stump speech was the most obvious material that Romney would have prepared for. It showed. Now, don't get me wrong, Romney was prepared to talk about a lot of other things, but the absolute minimum, the basis for his preparation was going to be Obama's stump speech. Romney did his homework and Obama did not anticipate it.
Second, Obama's staff forgot to arm him with facts. Not a single minute went by without Romney laying out some new fact in support of his ideas. Obama had ideas of his own, but he had very few facts to back is ideas up. I'll admit, there may be more facts to support Obama's ideas, but he just didn't have them ready to hand. This may simply be a brute-force memorization thing. As Obama supporter Bill Maher put it on Twitter, "I can't believe i'm saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter."
Third, Obama's demeanor was not what America has come to expect from him. He looked like he didn't want to be there. He smirked, he stuttered, he paused. In fact, he spent so much time stuttering and pausing that by the end of the debate he clocked in four minutes more speaking time than Romney. Those extra four minutes weren't usefully spent rebutting the former Massachusetts governor. They were instead spent stuttering and wildly casting about for answers. It was undignified and, frankly, unpresidential.
No Romney supporter should think that one debate is going to win the election. However, Romney supporters must feel as though the momentum for Team Obama has halted, and that Team Romney is feeling the wind at its back. If Romney can continue to bear down and be tough and prepared in debates, if he can continue to dominate the president and show more life and energy, if he can continue to be polished and prepared in his answers, Team Obama will have legitimate reasons to panic.
I suspect that much of the spin in advance of the vice presidential debate next week will portray Biden as the underdog and on his heels--especially thanks to the president's poor performance tonight. Team Romney must not allow expectations to be set so low for the vice president. They must point out that Biden is beloved by the Washington press corps as a longstanding--if goofy--figure of the political establishment, and they must shame the press corps into calling out any errors or verbal fumbles that Biden commits. Paul Ryan has to do exactly what Mitt Romney did tonight--take the fight directly to Biden, force him on the defensive, and appear more connected, more energetic, and sharper in his debate performance. Both he and Romney need to build on what Romney achieved tonight and they should make sure not to slacken for one moment on debate preparation. After all, we know that after tonight, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will be loaded for bear in order to overcome their stinging loss in the first debate. Moreover, Romney and Ryan need to make sure to work the debate performance into their stump speeches, focus on Romney's strong points and the president's weak ones, and further the case that Romney should be the next president.
An excellent night for Mitt Romney. Hopefully, he and Paul Ryan can go from strength to strength in the upcoming debates.