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On Wednesday night, Mitt Romney attempted a hostile takeover of the presidential campaign, manhandling the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, and dominating President Obama. I wasn’t in the debate hall, so my impressions came from watching on television, as they did for most voters. Romney struck me as briskly efficient, affable, and (shock!) convincingly bipartisan in how he presented himself. Obama, at least until the final 30 minutes, was discursive, meandering, and seemed poorly prepared. It’s true that Romney didn’t offer the details that pundits are clamoring for. But someone tuning in for the first time would surely have come away feeling that Romney was the candidate with a firm grasp of what he wanted to do and Obama the guy slightly out of his depth.
Romney did two critical things very effectively. First, he parried all the obvious attacks that he knew would be coming his way. Often he did so in ways that were deeply misleading—attacking Obama from the left on Medicare reform and “Too Big to Fail.” Second, he left a strong impression that he, and not the president, had better command of the facts, the issues, and what could be done to set the economy on a better course. “Yes, we can help,” Romney said early on. “But we need to take a different path.” That’s exactly the case he needed to make, and he did it as well as anyone could reasonably have imagined.
The effect was mainly impressionistic—he did it without offering any new details. And he did it by emphasizing his “beliefs” (“great schools, great teachers”), which don’t necessarily align with his policies. I don’t have a sense yet of whether Obama’s steady jabs about this lack of details and the post-debate spin to the same effect will blunt the impression that Romney was the clear winner. We’ll see. But I doubt it.
The debate was bad enough for Obama that I’ll bet that over the next few days details start to leak out about how he got cocky, got distracted by the demands of his day job, and didn’t prepare as well as he should have. That last one seems obvious already. Obama violated one of the cardinal rules of debate preparation, and it cost him. Recently, Ron Klain, a former top White House adviser to Joe Biden and John Kerry’s debate coach in 2004, wrote a memo (you can read it here) about how a successful candidate prepares for a debate. One of Klain’s main recommendations was that the candidate, when he gets to the podium, immediately write down three big things he wants to talk about and hammer away at them in every answer.
For Obama, those three things would have looked something like this: 1) 47 Percent, 2) Cayman Islands/Swiss Bank Accounts, 3) Tea Party. He didn’t mention any of them, or at least not that I caught. In fact, the clearest sign that Romney won the debate was that liberals in my Twitter feed were bitterly tweeting out what Obama should have said—but didn’t. Romney will obviously need to continue in this vein if he is to get back in the race. But for one night, he did exactly what he needed to do.