A little over a week ago President Obama appeared to be cruising towards re-election without a care in the world. Victory in the debate and the election seemed a formality. Now that has all changed. Uncertainty is everywhere and the race is well and truly back on. A poor performance for Romney last week would have been enough to seal the deal for an Obama victory. Instead, the president is on the ropes and Romney is surging. It may still be too late, but Obama has given himself an un-necessarily difficult final three weeks of the campaign.
With less than a month until Election Day, Mitt Romney had the debate of his life on precisely the same night that the president simply failed to show up. In fact, it may have been better for him if he actually hadn’t shown up at all. Instead he took to the stage, in what Al Gore reminds us is the thin, icy atmosphere of Denver, and gave a lacklustre performance that must have had Hillary Clinton wondering why he could not have been so bad 4 years ago.
The campaign to besmirch Governor Romney’s clear victory has made the Obama team look all the more desperate. Desperation may turn to despair when they finish analysing the latest data from the Pew Centre that gives Romney a clear lead. Even discounting national polling and focusing on the 5-6 key swing states, Romney has picked up dramatically. This may be part of what could be called a ‘dead cat bounce’ but I’m not so sure. The debates appeared to allow the American people what some on the right feel was their first, untainted view of Romney, removed from the spin associated with TV coverage. I think there is more to it, and that blaming the liberal bias (which is undoubtedly true) is a little too easy and actually diminishes what a great performance Romney turned in last week.
Before we begin to throw soil on Obama’s political corpse, however, let us not forget that Ronald Reagan had a poor first debate in his bid for re-election in 1984. He tuned that perception around with one great line in his second debate and never looked back. It has historically been the case that the first debate attracts most viewers. Put another way, millions who watched the debate last week will have decided on the basis of that performance who to vote for and won’t be tuning on to see if the president can perform miracles in the next two events. It is open to debate as to how many Americans will be willing to give this president a second chance, or whether he can pull off a Reagan-esque retort. His record on off-the-cuff remarks is not good. Indeed, if the debate last week revealed anything, it is the president’s dependence on the mighty auto-cue. 12 years ago Al Gore was forced to consider his demeanour, having been too hot in the first debate and too cold in the second. It cost him dearly. The same may well now be true for Barack Obama.
In a single evening, Mitt Romney has busted this race wide open. Now he needs to keep the pedal down and ruthlessly exploit his performance by once again taking the battle to Obama on foreign policy. Where once this would have been a potentially insurmountable problem, now, opportunity beckons to portray a stark contrast between a potential Romney presidency and what would occur under a second term Obama Administration. Romney began that process during a speech on foreign affairs in Virginia this week. With the upcoming debate he has the opportunity and the motive to continue his drive to chip away at Obama’s credibility on this key policy area.
Last week’s debate was focused on domestic affairs and as such it is possible that it will be Romney’s high point. From here on in, the debates could prove more difficult as the forum changes to a more relaxed style and the focus shifts to foreign affairs. Yet even in this case, perceived wisdom could be about to get turned on its head.
Until several weeks ago an argument emerged that unusually the Democrats were running as the party of national security (with Obama claiming responsibility for killing bin Laden) and the Republicans were running on a financially responsible ticket (having nominated Paul Ryan, along with his calls for fiscal responsibility).
However, having been demolished on domestic affairs, events are now even conspiring to shred Obama’s claim of foreign policy prowess. The facts emerging from Benghazi portray a disengaged president, asleep at the wheel as his ambassador perished and America’s consulate burned. All of the possible plaudits that Obama earned in the strike that killed bin Laden may well become nullified by the events in Libya. The House Oversight Committee hearings into the security failings in Benghazi are the last thing the president wants to deal with in the dying days of this campaign and could prove catastrophic to his claims of foreign policy credibility.
Last week Romney dominated the stage and brought his argument down to a series of succinct points. This apparently, is the true Mitt Romney style. He must do the same in the next debate on foreign policy and present a strong and credible alternative based on solid foreign and domestic polices if he is to prevail in November.