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Opinion

Obama played bad defense against an articulate, high-scoring Romney (+video)

President Obama's weary cadence throughout the presidential debate last night was a sad contrast with Mitt Romney’s sunny intensity and articulate flow of figures and 'facts.' His many good lines appealed to undecided voters or responded to negative impressions.

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We were told Romney would have clever “zingers” that would get the media’s attention. He didn’t. Rather, he had articulate brief attacks and points that were largely substantive. He told moderator Jim Lehrer that he liked PBS, he liked Big Bird, but he would zero out public broadcasting. He promised to use a simple test to decide whether to cut a federal program: Is this program worth borrowing money from China? To those few undecided moderates in the middle, those few remaining Perot voters, that type of symbolic elimination looks like courage, even though the number of dollars involved in those proposed cuts would be ridiculously small.

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But that’s emblematic of the overall wisdom of Romney’s approach as compared to Obama’s. Obama said almost nothing that would appeal to someone who wasn’t already with him. Romney, by contrast, had many good lines that either appealed to the undecided, or responded to negative impressions wavering voters might have about him.

Even when Romney told howlers that were factually challenged, Obama was not really able to effectively challenge them.

As Democratic political consultant James Carville said, it looked like Romney wanted to be there, and the president didn’t. You can’t go before the American people, and give the impression that a debate – one of the core parts of the presidential campaign – is a chore you are above.

In truth, Romney didn’t score any huge points. There were no campaign-shifting lines or gaffes. But the overall night was almost all Romney. And you can expect that Romney will get a bounce from this.

Of course, there are still two more debates, and Romney has shown in the past an ability to make gaffes that could stem his own momentum. And Obama could shake off tonight, and go on the attack next time. But two more debates like this, and Obama could find himself relearning how very cold Chicago is in February. 

Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University where he also directs the masters program in public policy.

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