All eyes were on Colorado tonight as President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney took the stage at the University of Colorado in Denver for their first Presidential debate. Two things were obvious from the very beginning of the evening: Mitt Romney showed up to win and Barack Obama just showed up.
Debating on the evening of his 20th wedding anniversary, Obama made sure to begin with a Happy Anniversary wish to his wife (appropriately…don’t ever forget the anniversary!). But I thought what Romney did next set the tone for the entire evening – he congratulated the Obamas and then made a joke about the “romance” of spending a wedding anniversary with him on a debate stage. He seemed at ease, even jocular at times; and he was fiercely prepared. Clearly Romney understood that moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS would do him no favors, and he made sure Lehrer never had a chance to moderate the debate away from him while he was making his points. At times Romney even interrupted Lehrer, saying he was not going to allow any of Obama’s accusations to go unanswered. Even Obama’s tried and true buzz words and phrases were no match for Mitt. When Obama brought up his passion for education (accusing his opponent of not caring about teachers) Romney pulled what may be one of the best lines of the night, reminding Obama that he gave away 90 billion dollars in taxpayer money to green energy companies – many of which have since declared bankruptcy. “90 billion dollars could have hired 2 million teachers. Why didn’t you use the money for teachers instead?” It was a salient point with no real comeback and none was offered. The challenger also gave conservatives a reason to be excited by laying out the basic tenants of freedom according to our founding documents and calling for the protection of religious freedoms and conscience (clearly a slam on the gross oversteps of Obamacare).
As for the President he looked flat, tired and unprepared. Perhaps he was fatigued from a long week of actively lowering his debate expectations on the campaign trail. Or perhaps he thought his legendary oratory skills and media-provided armor would be enough. Whatever he thought, he was wrong. It was a lackluster performance that had even his greatest supporters twisted in knots. Chris Matthews had what can only be described as a meltdown in his post-debate breakdown, and even Bill Maher questioned the President’s preparedness.
i can’t believe i’m saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter
— Bill Maher (@billmaher) October 4, 2012
It didn’t stop there either. Even in the moments where it seemed Obama might gain a little ground with his “fair share” rhetoric, Romney was prepared with examples from the President’s own record. As Romney slammed Obama’s signature healthcare legislation (while cleverly defending his own in Massachusetts), the President looked uncomfortable and angry. He spent much of the debate looking down at his paper, clenching his jaw and smirking. A few times he looked to Lehrer as if asking him to change the subject. His speech was halting and he rambled often. Even as someone who does not plan to vote for Obama, I was embarrassed for him.
Obviously one debate does not make or break a President. George Bush was not necessarily a great debater but he did win two terms. Obama will have two more debates to tighten up his arguments and improve his stage presence. What is most significant about this debate tonight is that it marks Romney’s first opportunity to speak to directly to the millions of Americans who have only known him through 30 second soundbites on MSNBC and the Daily Show. It was imperative that he break the mold the liberal media has been stuffing him into over the last year. He did just that. On-site polling by the major networks as well as focus groups conducted by Frank Luntz show a significant change in attitude toward Romney after the debate. Luntz himself said he had never before seen such a dramatic swing in a focus group. Thursday and Friday will no doubt have some interesting numbers to show in the daily Presidential tracking polls.
Tomorrow the media will spin and spin until their heads explode in order to find some positive outcome for Obama in all this; but spin is all it will be. In the aftermath of what may be the worst ever debate performance by an incumbent President there is only one conclusion that even the most faithful of Obama supporters have come to: he lost debate number one. Romney can definitively be declared the winner, but he still has an uphill battle and it would be naive to believe Obama will be that unprepared in the next round. In the meantime, the GOP has found a renewed excitement and Romney should be able to bask in the glow of a bump in the polls, if only for a few days.
Two more debates to go; and don’t forget the Biden/Ryan debate on October 11th, which promises to be equally entertaining.