The president's lackluster debate performance has the right gloating -- and liberals wondering why he didn't fight harder.
DENVER -- The Romney camp began flooding into the post-debate spin room before the candidates had given their closing arguments. They couldn't wait to start the gloating. "Governor Romney was the clear winner," crowed his strategist Eric Fehrnstrom. "If this were a boxing match, it would have been called by the referee." And: "Someone should check the heels on President Obama's shoes. They're probably pretty worn down, because he just spent 90 minutes back on them."
There was no question -- Romney won the debate. He ran away with it. He did all the things the stern-faced pundits and nervous Republicans had spent the past week saying he had to do -- look presidential, articulate a vision, talk specifics. And he was handed the unexpected gift of an opponent who was decidedly off his game -- a stumbling, rambling, dull-edged Barack Obama who spent most of the debate on the defensive.
In CNN's insta-poll of 430 registered voters who watched the debate, 67 percent said they thought Romney had done a better job, versus just 25 percent who gave it to Obama -- the highest-rated performance in any post-debate snap poll going back to 1984. Solid majorities of those polled said they believed Romney would do a better job than Obama on the economy, health care, taxes, and the deficit. Thirty-five percent said the debate made them more likely to vote for Romney; 18 percent were more likely to vote for Obama, while 47 percent said it would have no effect on their vote. If those numbers hold and enough voters watched, the debate could have a real impact in Romney's favor.
Some of the most anguished reactions to the debate came from liberals frustrated that Obama hadn't more forcefully attacked his rival. The president barely trotted out any of the attack lines in his effective campaign ads. In his very first rebuttal, rather than answer Romney's claim that he stood for "trickle-down government," Obama wandered off into a dissertation on education, the tax code, and energy production. When Romney denied that his tax plan would cost $5 trillion and benefit the wealthy, Obama kept repeating the claim but didn't do much to call him out as a flip-flopper. The president made no allusion to Romney's taxes, his work at Bain Capital, his wealth, or his "47 percent" comments. No less than the liberal television host Bill Maher lamented on Twitter that Obama could have used a teleprompter.
The debate's most significant development was the unequivocal debut of a moderate, pragmatic Romney -- the Romney who governed Massachusetts and has rarely been seen since his 2007-era reinvention as an archconservative. Romney flatly denied that he would cut taxes for the rich. He talked up the great schools in the Bay State. He embraced his Massachusetts health-care reform to an unusual degree, and swore he would make sure people with preexisting conditions could get insurance. All of these were changes in substance or emphasis from primary-vintage Romney, but Obama's attempts to note the swerve were halfhearted and muddled.
Obama's team took longer to trickle into the spin room, and there were only a few of them. They professed disdain for the shocked consensus of the punditocracy. Obama, they insisted, had been talking over the heads of the commentariat, reaching directly to voters in their living rooms. "He laid out what he wants to do on the issues the American people care about," said Jim Messina, the president's campaign manager, dismissing the critiques as "style points."
Obama adviser David Plouffe compared the debate performance to Obama's Democratic convention speech, which got lukewarm reviews but earned him a temporary boost in the polls. "I'm not interested in the peanut gallery, the pundit gallery," he said. "If they think they did so well, tell me five or six days from now if they've tied or taken the lead in Ohio, or in Iowa, or in Florida, or in Nevada. That's all that matters."
Romney's team was not going so far as to predict that the polls would turn in their favor. But Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who prepped Romney for the debates by role-playing Obama's part, predicted swing-state voters would be newly open to Romney's message and give him a hearing where they hadn't before. "I think what you're going to see is people start to listen more," he said.
A reporter asked Portman who had debated better, the president or Portman's mock version. He laughed. "No comment!" he said.