Mitt Romney came into the first presidential debate on the attack, aggressively pushing Obama on job creation, the economy, and healthcare, and making his best effort to reverse the trends of the polls and perceptions that he cares more about upper-income Americans than the middle class.
It was a surprisingly strong performance from the Republican presidential candidate, who many expected would be at a disadvantage compared with President Obama.
“On style, Mitt Romney came out the very aggressive debater and had a lot of punch in his remarks,” says Dotty Lynch, a public communications professor at American University in Washington. “On substance, both of them made some points,… but I think Romney may have done himself some good.”
Obama, in contrast, forcefully combatted Romney’s proposals – and questioned the lack of details in his plans – but refrained from the attacks many pundits had expected, on Romney’s personal wealth and tax rates, his tenure at Bain Capital, or his comments seeming to dismiss the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes.
The debate, held at the University of Denver in the battleground state of Colorado, was the first of three between the two presidential candidates and has gotten intense attention because the stakes are so large. The race has been tightening in the past week, and both candidates came to the stage Wednesday night needing both to convince the small number of undecided voters left, particularly in battleground states, and to energize their supporters to go to the polls.
Mr. Romney came in with the most to gain Wednesday night, trailing both in national polls and in most key swing states, and he also had lower expectations from voters about his performance.
He seemed to far outstrip those expectations Wednesday night, countering Obama with short, sharp answers and a focused smile that stood in contrast to Obama’s longer, more rambling answers and somewhat professorial demeanor.
A format that gave candidates more time – a full 15 minutes – to discuss a single question didn’t seem to help keep them from running over time.
Both Romney and Obama steamrolled over moderator Jim Lehrer’s occasional attempts to rein in their talking, and in the end, there were just 3 minutes left to discuss the final question, on partisanship in government.
The economy, as expected, dominated the debate, and so many numbers were lobbed in the first half of the debate that viewers might be excused for thinking they were in a math classroom or a budget committee briefing.
One number that surprisingly didn’t come up: the now-famous 47 percent figure, from Romney’s private talk to donors in which he disparaged the portion of the electorate that doesn’t pay federal income taxes.
Romney, as expected, went to great lengths to show just how much he does care about the middle class, promising tax relief to middle class families, and promising he was not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by the wealthy.
“Middle income families are being crushed,” he said.
His repeated insistence that Obama’s characterization of his tax cuts was wrong, in fact – and that he won’t put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit – finally prompted Obama to retort that “for 18 months [Romney] has been running on this tax plan, and now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying his big bold idea is ‘never mind.’ ”
Obama seemed strangely lacking in energy for much of the debate, though he came on stronger in the final half hour, and repeatedly returned to subjects where he felt he was strong: education, which played a much more prominent role in the debate than many expected, and his compassion for middle-class Americans.
He also scored more effective points when he repeatedly called Romney to task for his lack of details on his proposals.
Romney “says he’s going to close deductions and loopholes for his tax plan … but we don’t know the details,” Obama said. “He says he’s going to replace Dodd-Frank, Wall Street reform, but we don’t know exactly which ones. He won’t tell us. He now says he’s going to replace Obamacare and ensure that all the good things that are in it are going to be in there and you don’t have to worry. And at some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good?”
Romney, for his part, finally had an answer to how he shifted his stance on health care, from creating the Massachusetts law that is the model for Obama's health-care law – as Obama pointed out several times during the debate – to promising to repeal the law.
“I like the way we did it in Massachusetts,” said Romney, going on to emphasize the bipartisan support the law there had. “What we did in Massachusetts is a model for the nation state by state.”
Romney also got off a few of the much-anticipated “zingers” one of his aides had promised in recent days, at one point telling Obama, “Mr. President, you’re entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not to your own facts.”
But the debate, for the most part, stayed civil – even though both candidates repeatedly talked over Lehrer, and left him with almost no time for his questions on the governing and the role of government, after he hit jobs, the deficit, entitlements, and health care.
In terms of the nonverbal messages that often make more difference than what is said – remember Al Gore’s sighs and President George H.W. Bush looking at his watch – Romney also may have come out ahead.
Obama didn’t commit any major errors, but his sustained seriousness didn’t help him, where Romney appeared more at ease.
“To the extent that the debate hinged on demeanor, Romney won hands down,” says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. “He was cool, confident, and he kept his gaze on Obama. Obama didn’t seem strong or focused.”
Obama’s performance, says Professor Pitney, reminded him of the mistakes President Bush made in 2004, when he kept grimacing during Sen. John Kerry’s comments. “Expect a lot more Obama smiling next time,” Pitney says.
What’s unclear, of course, is how much the performance will matter.
Romney “was more prepared with short answers on some of the back and forth,” says Professor Lynch of American University. Obama, she says, seemed to want to stick with substance and issues he thinks will resonate with voters rather than score debate points. “But sometimes voters have a different take.”
Fact checkers were working overtime during and after the debate, picking apart candidates’ claims on job creation, entitlements, and their tax plans.
Romney made some waves when he said he had no plan to cut education funding, given that in the past he has promised to do just that.
One cut Romney did promise in the debate if he becomes president: funding for the Public Broadcasting Corporation.
“I’m sorry Jim,” he told Lehrer, who is an editor at PBS’s News Hour, in one of the most tweeted-about lines of the night. “I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I’m not going to … keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”
That answer at one point prompted 17,000 tweets per minute for “Big Bird.”