Presidential debate: Mitt Romney injects new life in his campaign

With the obits of his campaign all but written, Mitt Romney defies expectations and turns in a lifetime performance in the first presidential debate with rival Barack Obama. Suddenly, it's a new race.

David Goldman/AP
President Barack Obama (r) listens to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Wednesday in Denver.
Eric Gay/AP
Mitt Romney hugs his grand-daughter following the first presidential debate with President Obama.

The final month of the 2012 presidential race just got more interesting.

By turning in a stronger debate performance than President Obama – the instant post-game consensus of  Republicans, Democrats, and voters themselves – GOP nominee Mitt Romney has injected new life into a campaign that had nearly been given up for dead, despite only a slim deficit in polls.

Here’s a new poll to consider: A CNN/ORC survey of 430 Americans who had watched the debate, taken immediately after its conclusion, found that 67 percent said Mr. Romney performed better, versus only 25 percent for Mr. Obama. The likelihood of Obama’s reelection, as measured by the online betting market Intrade, plunged from 74 percent before the debate to 66 percent Thursday morning.

Even some of Obama’s strongest supporters were brutal in their assessments, even before the debate had ended.

“I can't believe I'm saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter,” tweeted comedian Bill Maher, who has donated $1 million to the biggest pro-Obama "super political-action committee."

Immediately after the debate, Obama spokespeople appeared subdued in TV interviews. But by the morning after, the campaign was back on offense, accusing Romney of lying throughout the debate.

“When the dust settles, Romney's dozen flat-out falsehoods will be the only thing remaining from his debate performance – because avoiding the truth has been the very definition of Romney's candidacy, and he can't escape that with a single smooth appearance,” the Obama campaign said in an introduction to a videotape replaying the alleged lies.

The Romney campaign, for its part, released a new TV ad Thursday morning pounding home the central message of his debate performance: That he is all about job creation.  

“Through his policies including tax reform, expanding trade and cracking down on China, he’ll create over 12 million new jobs and get our country back on track,” the Romney campaign said in its statement about the ad.  

Romney came to the Denver debate stage prepared, perhaps even a bit over-prepared, with talking points about his view of Mr. Obama’s plan for the nation: four more years of “trickle-down government,” marked by higher taxes that would hit not just the wealthy, but also the small businesses that are the engine of economic growth.

During the debate, Romney tore through reams of statistics about job-creation, the No. 1 concern of voters amid 43 straight months of unemployment over 8 percent.

“Fifty-four percent of America's workers work in businesses that are taxed not at the corporate tax rate but at the individual tax rate. And if we lower that rate, they will be able to hire more people,” Romney said, looking ever the polished businessman he was for 25 years.

“For me, this is about jobs,” he concluded.

Obama responded by accusing Romney of saying “never mind” to his tax plan, and threatening to harm the middle class by eliminating tax deductions and programs that make sure “everybody’s getting a fair shot.”  

Romney’s approach “will not grow our economy because the only way to pay for it without either burdening the middle class or blowing up our deficit is to make drastic cuts in things like education,” Obama said.

Romney fought back hard, beating back moderator Jim Lehrer’s attempts to enforce the debate schedule’s time limits.  He accused Obama of planning to raise taxes on “successful small businesses from 35 percent to 40 percent” at a cost of 700,000 jobs.

“I don’t want to cost jobs,” he said. “My priority is jobs.”

Not only were Republicans thrilled with Romney’s performance – likening it to his take-down of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a critical point in the Republican primaries – Democrats not affiliated with Obama’s campaign were tough on the president. Many observers opined that Obama didn’t seem all that eager to be on the debate stage Wednesday night.

“I think he was off his game tonight,” said James Carville, the mastermind of President Clinton’s first election in 1992, on CNN after the debate.

Democrats were stunned that Obama made no reference to the damaging videotape of Romney at a private fundraiser dismissing the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax, or to Romney’s record at Bain Capital, including layoffs.

But no one is counting Obama out. There are nearly five weeks and three more debates to go – two presidential and one vice-presidential – before the Nov. 6 election. Obama, in fact, has a history of ups and downs as a political performer, and a history of coming back when he gets knocked down.

Romney, too, has a history of getting knocked down, then reviving when his back is against the wall.  

Indeed, Romney had to do well in Wednesday’s debate, or the half-written obituaries on his campaign would likely have been completed. Perhaps Romney’s biggest regret will be that the debates started so late in the campaign. Early voting has already started in some states, including Ohio, arguably the most crucial battleground in the country, which opened its polls on Tuesday. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio.

“It's too bad that voters didn't see this Romney sooner,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, suggesting that the former governor showed glimpses of the "reasonable, practical" Massachusetts moderate whom Democrats feared. “The only person who had a worse night than President Obama was Sesame Street's Big Bird.”

During the debate, when asked what federal spending he would cut, Romney targeted the Public Broadcasting Service, home to the children’s show “Sesame Street.” He expressed love for the show’s large, feathery central character. Then he followed with a nod to the debate’s moderator, Mr. Lehrer of PBS’s “Newshour,” another icon of public TV.

“I actually like you too,” Romney said.

The quip seemed prepackaged, but no matter. It was a light moment in a fairly dry debate, and for a candidate who has struggled with likability, it was one of many reasons Republicans have a spring in their step Thursday morning.

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