In the days leading up to last week’s first presidential debate Mitt Romney’s campaign was at risk of being written off by many in his own party. Yes, it had gotten that bad. Beginning with his silly “world tour” that had him saying all the wrong things in just about every international stop, continuing with his impetuous and intemperate comments before the full story of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya was known, and coming to a head with the release of his disastrous remarks to a $50,000 a head fund raiser (the infamous 47% write-off), Romney had seemingly all but sealed his fate as another soon-to-be-forgotten Republican presidential candidate.
On the eve of the debate, Nate Silver (on his FiveThirtyEight blog) ran a column in which he suggested that a strong debate by Romney could narrow Obama’s lead by as much as two percentage points, but with Obama then projected to be a solid five points ahead, even the prescient Mr. Silver couldn’t have expected what has in fact happened.
And, as sixty million or so Americans saw, it all began with an opening fumble by the incumbent president as he half-heartedly tried to wish his wife a happy anniversary. It was a surprisingly clumsy attempt to appear human that was followed by a succession of lost opportunities to score points in that vein or in any other.
In the meantime, at the other podium, the challenger had come prepared with his A game. And was he ever impressive. Romney did everything he had to do, and then got a great assist from Obama who did nothing that he had to do. By the time they got to the two-minute closing remarks, it was evident that Obama had gotten his clock cleaned, but it got even worse when he stumbled through a lackluster close, only to be followed by a robust and passionate one by Mr. Romney.
The first insta-poll, released by CNN an hour after the debate had concluded, was better than two to one in favor of Romney (in the range of 65-25). And, in the national polls that have been released since then, the once near-formidable lead the president held on the eve of the debate has disappeared.
Six days after the debate, Mr. Silver had reduced his prediction of an Obama victory from a high of 86 percent just before the debate tobarely 70 percent, and he acknowledged in a side column that his “model” may not fully account for the gains Mr. Romney had made. In other words, what had been on the verge of being a blowout victory for the incumbent now has the look of one of those too-close-to-call election night headaches, with Obama supporters suddenly feeling defensive and hoping Vice-President Biden can turn things around in his debate against Paul Ryan this week.
Of course, much can still happen to change the calculus, not the least of which would be the two remaining presidential face-to-faces, as well as the reaction to this week’s VP session. But before those and other events cause our memories of the first debate to fade (and, perhaps, its importance to recede), a critique of the principal’s performances is warranted.
For his part, Mr. Romney did three things that he desperately needed to do, and he did them all very well.
First, he sounded presidential. This is mostly a style thing, but for many voters, it matters. If you are going to choose a new person to be your president, you want that person to look and sound like he (or she, someday) fits the image. Consider this one an audition, and Mr. Romney passed it with flying colors.
Second, he sounded human. This one is also mostly style, but it is another point that voters have to feel comfortable with. It’s kind of the “would-I-like-to-have-a-beer-with-him” question, and while Mr. Romney isn’t about to have a beer with anyone, he passed this one admirably as well.
And third, he did a nice pivot towards the center of the political spectrum where most of the critical undecided voters are. This was the long-anticipated “etch-a-sketch” maneuver, and whether he was outright lying or just “articulating his positions differently,” he came across as much more of a moderate than he had up until this point in the campaign. And, for the most part, he got away with it, which brings us to Mr. Obama’s performance.
In a word, it was awful, some might even say embarrassingly so.
I have a slightly less damning view, if only because I have never considered Mr. Obama to be an especially effective debater. As good as he is at delivering a prepared speech, especially when he has an adoring crowd cheering his every word, this man is not possessed of the glibness or comfort with his thoughts to be able to sound decisive in the give-and-take of a true debate.
And, complaints about the moderator (complaints I do not subscribe to) notwithstanding, this was pretty close to a true debate, with the candidates allowed to post and riposte almost without interruption (save for the occasional attempt by Mr. Lehrer to toss another open-ended question at them).
But even those who don’t have the gift of gab can hold their own in a debate if they do the one thing that every student of debate learns on day one, and that is to PREPARE. And, on this night, for whatever reason, Mr. Obama revealed himself to be woefully unprepared.
That lack of preparation was evident in his half-hearted opening statement, in his weak efforts to confront Mr. Romney when the challenger denied that he would slash taxes for the wealthy, in his inability to find a point (many were available) to remind everyone of Mr. Romney’s rejection of the “47 percent,” and in his sorry excuse for a closing argument.
And to top it off, the president seemed to be suffering from a lack of energy for, if not interest in, the entire proceeding. Like maybe he really didn’t want to be there.
Whatever. Obama struck out in the first debate and Romney hit a home run. The incumbent may still be ahead, but the challenger is rallying, and the gap is closing.