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, showed 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 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 desperately to steer it towards a previous chapter.
Most of what the Obama fans thought was most devastating — the 47 percent, Bain Capital, Romney’s tax returns — never made an appearance. Perhaps it’s easier to run ads on these topics, laying out your opponent’s greed, cruelty, and callousness, than it is to repeat the same attacks, from your own mouth, with the target right in front of you.
It’s tough to find an exchange where Romney clearly lost, whereas Obama let out the “You may want to move on to another topic, Jim” early on while discussing the economy. It was an early white flag, and if viewers lost interest as the night wore on, it is likely to be one of the more surprising moments.
Did Obama get enough sleep last night? He seemed really, really off his game. A lot of 2008 Democratic primary debates seemed to end with solid wins for Hillary, but the hope-and-change atmospherics of his campaign carried him through any subpar debate performances. He can’t count on that this time around. Perhaps it’s that he’s less energetic than he was four years ago, perhaps he needs sleep, perhaps he dramatically underestimated Romney as an opponent. John King just summed up, “It seemed like Obama didn’t want to debate Romney.” He didn’t seem to want to be there, that was clear.
Or perhaps he was convinced he was ready for this debate, as he was convinced he was ready for the presidency.
Either way, the dynamic of the race shifted tonight. If the audience tonight was small, and only some of the remaining undecideds or persuadable voters tuned in, it shifted a little. If the audience was large, and the viewers watching were open to Romney, the dynamic may have shifted a great deal tonight.
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Jim Geraghty writes “The Campaign Spot” column for the National Review. This article was originally published there on Oct. 3, 2012.