Romney aggressive, Obama subdued in first debate
The home stretch of the 2012 election kicked off Wednesday night with a first debate that saw an assertive Mitt Romney pressing a more subdued President Barack Obama on the economy and other domestic policy matters.
They’ve been sparring for months through tit-for-tat attack ads, campaign speeches and TV interviews.
But President Barack Obama and his rival, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, squared off for the first time face-to-face Wednesday night in an anxiously awaited debate that kicked off the tense final countdown to the general election on November 6.
Anyone expecting fireworks, however, most likely walked away frustrated.
Held at the University of Denver in Colorado and moderated by journalist Jim Lehrer, the debate focused on domestic issues and produced some dense, statistic-heavy exchanges over the economy, healthcare and the role of government – but little in the way of dramatic political theatre.
With Obama leading national and many swing-state polls going into the debate, and with the election little more than a month away, pressure was on Romney to deliver a strong performance.
The consensus among analysts and viewers surveyed in the wake of the televised match-up was that he delivered: a CNN poll released late Wednesday night after the debate showed 67% of respondents saying that Romney came out on top, while 25% considered Obama the victor.
“There's no real question that Romney won the first debate,” assessed Dr. Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Obama left his A-game at the White House.”
Indeed, Romney struck an assertive tone from the get-go, rattling off grim economic statistics and reminding voters that the president has had four years to make things better. “Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people today,” Romney said, in one of several attempts to present himself as the candidate of change.
According to Karlyn Bowman, an analyst at right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute, “It was one of Romney’s best performances…and could give [him] a boost”.
Obama, meanwhile, appeared comparably subdued, reminding voters that he inherited a desperately flailing economy and pointing to “5 million jobs created” and an automobile industry that is now “roaring back” thanks to his bailout.
The president also tried to draw contrasts with his rival and tie him to unpopular former president George W. Bush, noting that Romney’s positions on tax policy and financial regulation were the very same as those that led to the “worst financial crisis since the Great Depression”.
But contrary to expectations, Obama did not attack Romney on his controversial record as former CEO of private equity firm Bain Capital or his recent comments -- revealed in footage leaked to the press -- that it is not his “job” to “worry” about the 47% of Americans “dependent on government”.
Perhaps mindful of retaining his well-documented “likeability” advantage over Romney, Obama’s measured approach allowed Romney to remain on the offensive for much of the contest. “Most Democrats are complaining bitterly on Twitter about how many opportunities Obama missed,” Sabato said.
Thomas Mann, a political analyst at left-leaning think tank the Brookings Institution, reported similar sentiment. “Reporters and liberals wanted more blood on the floor and Obama didn't draw it from Romney,” he said, adding that the Republican could nevertheless be taken to task in the coming days for some glaring factual inaccuracies.
But does it matter?
Though Romney can expect a “bump” in the polls from his solid showing in Denver, Mann said, “Obama still looks like the winner” in the general election.
In addition to the vice presidential debate scheduled for October 11, Obama and Romney are slated to face off again on October 16 and October 22.
Given the reactions immediately following Wednesday’s debate, Obama may face pressure to bring sharper jabs and a more impassioned delivery to his next encounter with Romney. The Republican nominee will likely look to use the subsequent debates to stage a comeback after several weeks of headline-grabbing missteps and flagging poll numbers.
But with early voting already underway in 35 states, undecided voters estimated as a smaller-than-usual portion of the electorate and Obama currently considered the favourite, the question looming is whether the candidates’ debate performances can significantly impact the shape of the race.
“This is going to be a test of how much debates can change the polls,” Sabato said. “Will [they] matter? Are the partisans just cheering for their side? We'll find out.”