Last night’s debate between President Obama and Governor Romney exceeded the expectations of many pundits and political analysts. It was civil, substantive, and provided a sharp contrast between the two candidates who outlined their vision and future for the nation. President Obama made a case for government, while Governor Romney argued on behalf of the private sector. Both men defended their differing visions, and have finally given us a race with substance and not just talking points. But what truly stuck out was that Mitt Romney, perhaps the real Mitt Romney, showed up… And won, handily. It is hard for any objective viewer to make any other logical or factual conclusion.
Debates are about perception, and Romney was theatrical and seemed to control the night. Fact checking aside (I will leave that to the fact checkers and the posted link to outline the specific inaccuracies of both men) this debate was full of information, polite and presidential discourse, and disagreement from both men. However, Mitt Romney showed what his weeks and months of intense preparation have been for. He was calm, collected, and armed with facts, figures, and strong talking points, which up until this debate has bee void from his campaign. The major flaw of the Romney campaign up until last night was that they were still stuck in the primary election. Romney could not seem to please his base enough to veer toward the center and talk to the nation as a whole, and be fully involved in the general election. Well, for whatever reason, perhaps out of desperation, or a rude awakening, he got the message and delivered it last night.
Governor Romney was aggressive and continually on the offensive, rationally and respectfully, and controlled the tone and rhythm of the debate from the beginning. He not only overtook the President but also the moderator who could not seem to keep a handle on the debate or get a word in edgewise. For Republicans, this is the Mitt Romney they have been hoping and waiting for. Despite whatever reason it took him this long to show up, he did last night, and illustrated why he is qualified and capable of being a presidential contender. Polls had suggested the President would beat him, and most pundits had called the debate his last chance to make a difference, and I agreed with that. However, his performance and this debate have reinvigorated his campaign and turned this into a real match between both men and their differing ideologies.
I do not seek to make an argument for one philosophy or another in this post-mortem, but in the world of debates Mitt Romney pierced the emperors robe last night and showed that the Barack Obama of 2008 and the Barack Obama who is President are fallible. The perception that Mitt Romney is some weaker challenger going against the President of the United States got erased last night. President Obama was shaken and visibly perturbed by the entire evening, and sometimes that is all that is necessary, to show that your opponent is not as invincible as he may seem.
On the other hand, the President did not need to win last tonight; he just needed not to lose. Unfortunately, it is pretty clear that he lost. However for an incumbent, especially one whose poll numbers have been as high as the Presidents in key swing states (which will decide the election), he just needs to stay the course, keep steady, and he already has an advantage as the President. Opponents, such as Romney, who go up against an incumbent, by nature, stand to gain points after a first debate simply being on the same stage as the President. By being up there and going one-on-one it elevates them to a higher level. Unfortunately for the President, he did not meet, surpass, or live up to the expectations, especially with his skills in oratory. He seemed shocked that he was being challenged and was looking for the teleprompter to save him, but to his dismay it simply was not there tonight. He may have sought to remain presidential by not attacking Mitt Romney, or by engaging in a heated debate, but in doing so he seemed visibly irritated and not as enthused as Romney was. Romney clearly relished in the opportunity to finally get a message, his message, out to the country. President Obama instead was defensive and opted to be more professorial in his method, which may seem condescending, as opposed to the inspirational and skilled orator that he was in 2008. He failed to look at Romney and address him directly, or call him out on a number of inconsistencies in his policies that contradict months and weeks of policy claims by the Romney campaign. If President Obama does not want this election to get away from him he must study up, practice more, and go back to the basics that made him the candidate he aspired to be when he first ran in 2008.
At the end, the debate belonged to Mitt Romney. He needed to show that he was presidential, and he did that. He had to show that he could stand on the same stage as the President of the United States and challenge him, and he did that. He needed to illustrate the ability to convey his message clearly and with conviction, and he did that. He had to show that he was a viable and strong contender to Barack Obama, and he did that. Most importantly, he had to show that he could beat Barack Obama come election day, and with a debate performance like that, he sure did that as well.