It had been nearly 1,400 days since Barack Obama strode onto a debate stage — and it showed in a major way Wednesday at the first presidential debate of 2012.
Obama, who has spent most of the past four years speaking to hand-picked interviewers or lecturing audiences required to remain mostly mute while he spoke, struggled to shake off the rust in a jostling debate environment that gave his opponent Mitt Romney parity, equal time — and a new lease on political life.
There were no game-changing gaffes and the debate was a substantive break from months of caustic negative campaigning on both sides, including lengthy discussions over deficit reduction and entitlement reform that seemed to yield hints of common ground — and also seemed to elevate both men.
Yet even that was inherently bad news for Obama, who had hoped to convince voters he was the only possible president onstage.
Romney’s aides and surrogates sprinted into the spin room to offer effusive assessments of their candidate’s performance, and Fox News contributor Juan Williams was caroling “Massacre! Massacre!” to himself as he bounded out of the men’s restroom. Obama’s team didn’t meet the press for a full 10 minutes — and one top Democrat, asked to say the best thing about the president’s performance, said Obama has been “just working to maintain cool and be reassuring” in an email to POLITICO.
“Look, Romney was always going to have a good night on style points,” conceded Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who still judged his boss to be the winner. “I’ve been telling you guys that for a very long time, but look, we won this debate tonight because we talked directly to the American people about plans. Romney couldn’t do it. He stayed on defense the entire time. He couldn’t lay out a tax plan that made any sense. You know he spent a bunch of time trying to defend his Medicare positions in states like Ohio and Florida; that’s gonna be a real problem for him.”
Romney wasn’t perfect but he kept his awkward outbursts — which have plagued him throughout his career — to a minimum.
One cringe-worthy moment came when he tried to justify his proposed cut to PBS, which employs moderator Jim Lehrer and Sesame Street characters.
“I’m sorry, Jim,” he said, reprising a standard stump speech line. “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for. That’s No. 1.”
Yet Romney appeared to provide a flailing candidacy with new direction. A smiling, relaxed former governor, confident and under control after 27 debates over the past 18 months, seemed to strike a balance he has thus far failed to achieve, attacking Obama and softening his own image and positions.
“I think all of us will conclude that from the opening statement on, Mitt Romney won the debate, and so my sense is that, as often happens in first debates, which incidentally are always the most significant, you’ll see the needle move a few points,” said former Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas, now a lobbyist and Romney surrogate.
“I’m not saying it’s decisive in the campaign, but it’s a tremendous progress for Mitt. My sense is the race is practically tied now. By next week when you wake up, you’ll see Mitt probably forging ahead in a few of these swing states that are pretty close now. And so the president is going to have to re-evaluate what his strategy is going to be.”
Romney spent much of the night tacking hard to the center, tempering his support for what Obama called a $5 trillion tax plan in an attempt to make himself more palatable to the middle class, praising Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan for fostering state reforms and adopting a complaint many Democrats have expressed about Obama — that he rammed through his health care bill at the expense of a laser focus on jobs.
The “severe conservative” Romney portrayed himself as in the GOP primaries was duct-taped and chucked in the University of Denver basement, replaced by a man who called for “Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan” compromise — seemingly a challenge to the tea party wing of his own party.
Asked if Obama had let Romney portray himself as a centrist, Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said, “If you ask me did he do a good job of selling? I think that’s what he was up there doing. But when people take a look at the product, … it turns out there was nothing there but bad news.”
At times, he even seemed to be channeling Obama 2008, at least stylistically.
“As president, you are entitled to your own house, your own airplane but not your own facts,” he told Obama in one of the few laugh lines of the night. That language tracked closely with Obama’s oft-repeated lecture to Republicans: “You are entitled to your opinion, but not your own facts.”
Obama, in contrast, seemed far less comfortable, almost grim at times, even as he articulated a defense of his tax, health care and deficit-reduction plans.
The president’s staff has played down expectations — voters expected the president to win the debate by a 2-to-1 margin in some polls — and they had good reason, as it turned out.
Obama smiled at the start, greeting the former Massachusetts governor and beginning by wishing first lady Michelle Obama a happy anniversary — he called her “sweetie.” But he seemed tense and defensive at times, and professorial, despite his staff’s public urging that he shorten and lighten up his answers during three days of debate prep in a Las Vegas suburb.
How tough a night was it for the incumbent?
He even muffed some of the basics of Debate 101, struggling to find the right camera to address once or twice during the mostly civil 90-minute exchange.
“Why didn’t he look straight at the camera?” a reporter asked Messina.
“I don’t agree,” the campaign manager replied. “I think the president talked directly to the American people repeatedly in a way that is important to them, and talked really specifics, and Romney was not able to do that repeatedly.”
But Romney even seemed to get the better of the anniversary exchange.
“Congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary. I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here — here with me.”
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