Earlier this week I wrote for the Commentator, “In the coming days the world will witness whether Mitt Romney has what it takes to take on a sitting president and emerge unscathed. If he can do so, and land a punch or two, his odds for victory in November will improve considerably and motivate his legions of supporters. If he proves unable to do so, then it will finally be time for the obligatory Plump Female to begin her low, mournful torch song lamenting Romney’s beleaguered campaign.”
Well, the Fat Lady has been forced to postpone her outburst, at least for now.
After weeks of anticipation the 2012 presidential debate season began in earnest last night at the University of Denver. With both sides having sought to lower expectations to such a degree that an ability to walk and chew gum at the same time would be sufficient to declare one pleased with the result, the gloves finally came off as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney finally met on stage. It is an oft- forgotten fact that the two men at the centre of the election will only meet three times during the entire election process.
As the debate focused on domestic policy it was perhaps Mitt Romney’s best opportunity to take the fight to the incumbent. With unemployment standing stubbornly at around 8% and the national debt upwards of $16 trillion this was always going to be the one debate during which Obama may have been on the defensive. That being the case, however, few could have expected to what degree this would be the case. Not usually one to be seen as lacking in confidence, Obama appeared to be in something of a daze last night, as though he couldn’t decide which Obama to be.
Ahead in the polls and enjoying a post-convention bounce, Obama really just needed to keep calm and servive. Fundamentally he didn’t need to debate Mitt Romney. However, having been derided for his dependence on an autocue, the president’s inherent flaws were on display in front of an audience of millions. Alternating between a professorial approach that sought to lecture the American people, and an altogether more contrite and subdued performance, the impression was of a candidate uncertain of his place. One minute he was hectoring the anchor, (who, it must be said, did a poor job of moderating the event) the next he appeared servile and demure in the gaze of his opponent. He failed to raise flaws in the Romney manifesto, the issue of Romney’s apparent dismissal of 47% of the electorate or to rebut allegations made on stage. In short, the president was badly off his game.
For there can be no doubt that this was Mitt Romney’s night. Following an initial concern regarding the haltering tone of voice, Romney quickly found his stride, his tone and his message. This was an excellent performance that deliberately took the fight to the incumbent and made a valiant effort to reclaim the middle ground of American politics, where this election will be decided. Romney changed the dynamic of the race by throwing caution to the wind and chosing to take the battle to the president. He dominated the stage and the debate. By directly challenging Obama on the economy, on jobs, and on healthcare he left the president nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide.
This was not the Mitt Romney of the primary season that appeared on stage last night. This was the Mitt Romney that was Governor of Massachusetts, the Mitt Romney that introduced what became an early model for Obamacare. Conservative Republicans may not like this, but the Democratic leadership should fear it. If Romney can continue to stress the moderate message and bi-partisan track record of achievement, he may yet begin to chip away at the independent voters who will decide this election.
Debates usually favour the challenger and this has proven to be the case once again, but will Romney actually benefit? Races traditionally tighten in the last few weeks, a period we are now entering. It may be too late in the process to secure a Romney victory, especially as anything up to a third of all votes have already been cast. However, his efforts will enhance the pressure on the Obama team and increase the likelihood of mistakes. If the polls start to narrow in the coming days then Romney can take great credit for a commanding performance in Denver. This could position him well for the debate on foreign affairs, a topic the president is so eager to pivot to that he introduced it in his closing remarks.
Indeed, the closing remarks of the candidates were revealing in their own right. Obama, master of the autocue, forget to address the audience at home until the last seconds of his remarks, having focused his response directly to the moderator. As a result, he appeared distracted, unfocused and befuddled. Romney, in contrast, directed his remarks straight down the camera lens to the millions of voters whom he badly needed to connect with. He gave a direct and forthright statement and of the two candidates, was the only one to thank the voters for bothering to tune in.
It may all be too little, too late for Romney, but he appears determined to go down swinging. The odds and the polling still favour the incumbent. But as the American Ryder Cup team found out at this weekend, it ain’t over, until it’s over, and right now, this race is far from over. Indeed, last night’s debate may have blown it wide open for the first time!