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Ear to the Ground

Romney Brings ‘A’ Game to First Presidential Debate

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Posted on Oct 3, 2012
AP/Eric Gay

Mitt Romney came prepared, Barack Obama looked like he didn’t want to be there and Jim Lehrer probably wishes he hadn’t agreed to moderate Wednesday night’s presidential debate. That’s the succinct summary of the first of three debates between the two men vying for the White House.

The debate, held in Denver, presented a key opportunity for Romney to redeem himself after his campaign experienced a series of gaffes and stumbles that left the Republican nominee down not just in the public’s perception, but in the polls as well.

The buildup to these debates had been enormous, with each campaign trying to set high expectations of the other candidate while lowering its own.

Romney badly needed this debate and what the forums can offer the candidates: a chance to reveal their differences on policy and distinguish their points of view while also showcasing their ability to think critically on their feet in front of a national audience. A good debate performance can improve a campaign’s prospects, while a poor one can cement an unwanted fate (see: Rick Perry).

And if reaction immediately after the debate was evidence, Romney emerged as the clear winner. His performance was impressive, while Obama appeared tired, rusty and, at times, annoyed.

This debate focused heavily on policy specifics (surprisingly enough) and economic issues, with questions on tax plans, job creation, Medicare and Social Security. Romney was on the offensive throughout the 90-minute debate, attacking the president on the country’s weak economic growth, high unemployment rate and Obama’s signature health care plan. The former Massachusetts governor particularly excelled on style. Romney’s answers tended to be clear and succinct, whereas Obama meandered at times and sounded long-winded.

In short, Romney spent a lot of time preparing for the debate and it showed.

And then there were the zingers. Romney’s campaign made it no secret that its candidate was preparing scripted “zingers” to use during the series of debates. As a result, the strategy subsequently became one of the most eagerly anticipated aspects of the event.

In that respect, Romney had some very good lines throughout the debate, starting when he acknowledged the 20th anniversary of Barack and Michelle Obama (which fell on the day of the debate). Romney quipped: “I’m sure it’s the most romantic place you can imagine, here with me.”

Throughout the night, each candidate was able to get off some good lines as the two men sparred on tax plans (Obama: “He’s been running on this tax plan for 18 months, and now his big bold idea is ‘never mind’ ”), getting legislation passed (Romney: “In my experience as governor, if I come in and say ‘my way or the highway,’ I don’t get much done”), education reform (Obama: “It wasn’t very detailed, which seems to be a trend”) and even truth-telling (Romney: “You’re entitled to your own house, your own plane, but not your own facts”).

But perhaps the line of the night from the former governor came when Romney discussed cutting funding to PBS—which, as it so happens, is where Lehrer is employed. He said: “I’m sorry Jim, but I’ll cut funding to PBS. I love Big Bird, I actually like you too, but I’m going to stop borrowing money from China to pay for things we don’t need.”

Yes, Romney, who once famously said he liked to fire people, told Lehrer to his face that essentially he wanted to fire him. That’s so Romney.

And speaking of Lehrer, he emerged as the clear loser of the night, with a performance that was widely panned on Twitter. Lehrer’s experience moderating presidential or vice presidential debates (12, including Wednesday night’s, in total) was not evident as he appeared to lose control of the candidates pretty early on. At one point, Lehrer told Obama his two minutes were up and was met by the president with this response: “I had five seconds before you interrupted me.” Romney also accused the moderator of interrupting him.

Indeed, Lehrer at times could not keep either of the candidates on track, leading to the Twitter handle @SilentJimLehrer to spring up midway through the debate. Silent Jim Lehrer proved to be a man of few words, just like the moderator himself.

All in all, Romney made the most of the opportunity presented to him Wednesday night. Whether he changed the minds of the electorate, or appealed to any of the all-important undecided swing state voters (which, it is worth noting, have recently been skewered by the likes of Bill Maher and “Saturday Night Live”), is another question entirely.


—Posted by Tracy Bloom.

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