If the 15 percent of presidential voters who somehow still claim to be undecided left their cocoons long enough to watch Wednesday's debate, it was a good night for Mitt Romney.
In performances that almost unanimously seem to have elated conservatives and deflated liberals, the more-aggressive Republican dominated the first of three presidential debates against Democratic incumbent Barack Obama, who spent much of the evening gazing at the floor instead of at Romney, the Denver audience or the American people polls say remain evenly divided between the two men.
Maybe that's why 67 percent of viewers polled immediately following the 90-minute debate by Cable News Network– hardly a conservative mouthpiece – gave the edge to Romney, with 35 percent saying the performance made them more likely to vote Republican in November compared to just 18 percent for Obama.
As so often happens in politics, those results reflect the unfortunate elevation of style over substance. Both candidates stuck to their familiar talking points, quickly seizing control from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS. Surely even the clueless 15 percent knows by now that Romney is a businessman who favors private-sector solutions while Obama favors “economic patriotism” and government intervention to ensure all Americans get “their fair share.”
The problem for Obama was not so much that he underperformed (although he did) but that Romney exceeded the expectations of even his own supporters. Often accurately criticized for appearing passionless, aloof and even clueless, Romney's forcefulness and apparent enthusiasm – which never crossed he line into rudeness -- was all the more effective precisely because it was so unexpected. Any challenger taking the state with an incumbent president is automatically elevated, but when that challenger appears just as presidential as the man holding the office, the impact can be eye-opening.
“I don't know what (Obama) was doing out there,” said an exasperated Chris Matthews of MSNBC, an Obama supporter who suggested the president prepare for the next debate by watching other shows on his network hosted by people who have made attacking conservatives an art form.
There was substance in the debate, however – both in the form of punches landed and missed. Romney effectively and repeatedly rejected the president's contention that he would shift taxes from the rich to the middle class, with Obama pointing out the lack of specifics in some of Romney's proposals. Romney parried Obama's criticism of tax breaks for the oil industry by pointing out that Obama has spent far more on “green” energy companies that have failed.
“You don't pick winners and losers,” Romney said. “You pick losers.”
As for squandered opportunities, there were plenty on both sides.
Obama, in a curious omission noted by supporters and opponents alike, never mentioned the recently released recording of Romney's dismissal of the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax as “victims” who would never support him. Romney, on the other hand, never challenged the strange contention that voters should re-elect Obama not on the strength of his own economic record but because of what Bill Clinton did nearly 20 years ago.
In fairness to the president, it is always harder to defend a record than to make promises. Unburdened by the office, Romney promised to achieve all sorts of wonderful things while inflicting hardly any pain on a country that still demands big government but refuses to pay for it. But Obama's promises were even more dubious, his talk of lower deficits and higher employment belied by the very record he wants to prolong.
People who have not made up their mind about a president in nearly four years or a challenger after several months of campaigning will not be swayed by policy minutia. By demonstrating that Romney is neither a fool nor a heartless ogre, the debate was a clear win for the Republican – even though you can bet Obama will be more effective next time.
But the debate also established the Big Picture for the rest of the campaign, one even undecided voters cannot miss. As Romney asked in his closing: “What kind of America do you want?” Lehrer's question about the proper role of the federal government crystallized the difference.
Obama believes the government exists to “open up opportunity.”
Romney actually mentioned the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
No word yet on what the 15 percent thinks about that, or if they even knew what he was talking about.