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Mitt Romney (left) makes a point in Wednesday's debate as President Obama looks on.
Associated Press/Photo by Rick Wilking (pool)
Mitt Romney (left) makes a point in Wednesday's debate as President Obama looks on.

Commanding performance

Politics | A fired-up Mitt Romney challenges a sluggish President Obama on his record in the first presidential debate

Gov. Mitt Romney began his remarks Wednesday night during the campaign season’s first presidential debate by congratulating President Obama on his wedding anniversary.

“I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me,” the Republican challenger joked to the president.

Ninety-minutes later, President Obama walked off the stage having endured probably his worst anniversary ever.

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Facing deficits in crucial swing state polls and already hearing from the media that he is staring at defeat next month, Gov. Romney commanded the debate stage (and debate moderator Jim Lehrer) like his back was against the wall.

Energetic and aggressive, Romney challenged Obama, who often seemed distracted and ill at ease. Romney looked directly at the president while speaking. Obama, often wearing a bemused smile, frequently looked down or stared at Lehrer as if asking for help.

Simply put, the president looked rusty. After all, this was his first debate in four years. Meanwhile, Romney clearly benefited from enduring the Republican primary season’s marathon debate schedule.

The former Massachusetts governor came prepared with both facts and figures as well as personal stories about hurting people he has met on the campaign trail (tellingly, many of those anecdotes involved women, a voting bloc on which Romney needs to make up ground, according to the polls).

In a night lacking in classic one-liners, Romney nailed an early zinger when he described Obama’s philosophy as “trickle-down government.” Tough without being nasty, Romney didn’t really let up the rest of the night.

But, surprisingly, Obama lobbed few attacks. After spending all summer hitting Romney’s record as a businessman and after spending the last month ridiculing Romney’s videotaped remarks that nearly half of Americans don’t pay taxes, Obama did not once mention Romney’s association with Bain Capital or his “47 percent” comment. Instead, the president employed a flat, professorial tone to state talking points.

Obama began, like he often has this campaign season, outlining the dire economic situation that he faced in 2009 when he became president.

“Four years ago, we went through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” he said.

Romney hit back: “But you’ve been president for four years, you’ve been president for four years.”

Romney, often taking over the debate for long stretches from the passive Lehrer, unleashed a lengthy dissection of Obama’s record and why he believes the country can’t afford another four years of it.

He listed how families have lost $4,300 in annual income under Obama, how 23.5 million Americans are either out of work or underemployed, how the national debt has risen to $16 trillion up from the $10.6 trillion when Obama took office, and how the number of people on food stamps has risen by 15 million.

“The people who are having a hard time right now are middle-income Americans,” Romney said.

When he told a story about meeting a woman who asked if he could help the nation’s economic situation, Romney said, “The answer is yes, we can help. But it’s going to take a different path, not the one that we’ve been on.”

The debate had plenty of dense policy moments about taxes, jobs, healthcare, entitlements, and the role of government. But what most viewers will remember are the performances of the two men: How Obama looked slow and off his game, almost as if he were sitting on his poll lead. In the other corner, Romney looked like he had been waiting a long time for this moment to challenge the president face-to-face.

“It’s fun, isn’t it,” Romney said at one point.

Even Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, conceded to reporters in the moments after the debate that Romney had won in preparation and style points.

“If that debate was a fight they would have stopped it,” tweeted John McCain, Obama’s opponent four years ago. The senator from Arizona joined a chorus of tweets that made the debate the most tweeted about political event so far in Twitter’s brief history. (See WORLD’s Twitter coverage.)

On Sunday, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a Romney surrogate, predicted that Romney’s debate performance would be so good that “this whole race is gonna be turned upside down come Thursday morning.”

The media and the nation love a comeback story, and Romney gave a crisp debate performance that fits that narrative. The coming days will tell if the debate not only energized the Republican base but also got independent voters more comfortable with Romney. Meanwhile, Obama has two more debates to shake off the grim and passive persona he displayed on Wednesday.

Let us know who you thought won Wednesday night's presidential debate in our online poll.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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