If the point of the first presidential debate was to establish a fundamental difference between President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent Gov. Mitt Romney, as moderator Jim Lehrer set out to do, it was achieved not in soaring rhetoric or memorable one-liners, but mostly by body language and attitude.
Romney, by most accounts, emerged the winner Wednesday, not because his policies are sure to re-set the economy or because his zingers appeared to resonate more with voters, but because the former governor of Massachusetts appeared to control the debate, shutting down the president and moderator more often and kept up the attack on the Democratic incumbent.
Obama, meanwhile, hung his head and often appeared to be biting his tongue.
While LGBT equality has been a high point in Obama administration — passage of a national hate crime law, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the President announcing his support of same-sex marriage — those and other issues received little time.
And that’s OK according to GOProud’s Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia.
“Tonight makes it clear, whether you are gay or straight, if jobs and the economy is your number one issue – Mitt Romney should be your candidate,” he said in a statement released after the debate.
But Stonewall Democratic Executive Director Jerame Davis said Romney failed to deliver a concrete vision of the country.
“Mitt Romney came to tonight’s debate prepared to take pot shots at President Obama while dodging questions about the specifics of his vague plans,” he said. “In contrast, President Obama addressed the American people directly and laid out a vision for the next four years. Romney’s choices – style over substance, attacks over proposals, platitudes over policies – speak to his character and the type of leader he would be.”
Still, the Romney candidacy, which has suffered setback after setback since the August Republican National Convention, potentially breathed new life into the race for the White House at the University of Denver, a private college in the critical swing state of Colorado. Although the impact of the first debate — viewed by approximately 60 million viewers — will not be known for several days.
“He wins the style points,” said Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, on CNN. “But that’s not what’s been dogging his campaign. What is dogging his campaign are the policies that he doubled down on tonight.”
David Axelrod, one of Obama’s most trusted advisers, said Romney was prepared for battle.
“There’s no doubt he was well rehearsed, he was very well rehearsed,” he said. “He’s been rehearsing since June. I was not at all surprised. He’s a very good debater. I’ve talked long before tonight, Romney is particularly good on the attack and he enjoys it. He has no compulsion about walking away from facts, walking away from half statements and that’s already served him well.”
Romney’s top strategist told reporters, after the debate, Romney proved he was ready to be commander-in-chief.
“Tonight, you saw one person up there on stage who is ready and eager to be the president of the United States,” Stuart Stevens said.
Stevens went on to dismiss polling numbers that showed his candidate behind.
“Those of us who do campaigns for a living — and I’ve probably done 30-plus campaigns — the idea of being two points behind in a state is where you want to be when you’re running against an incumbent.”
Earlier in the evening both Romney and Obama outlined several plans to reshape the economy and cut the deficit.
The GOP candidate said he’d make the U.S. energy independent, open up more free trade, promote new skill training, balance the budget and champion small business with a simplified tax code.
Obama claimed Romney’s plans would add $8 trillion to the defect.
“First of all, I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale that you’re talking about,” Romney repeated in variations multiple times. He continued at one point, “The people who are having the hard time right now are middle-income Americans. Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried.”
The president countered he’s already lowered taxes for most Americans.
“So at the same time that my tax plan has already lowered taxes for 98 percent of families, I also lowered taxes for small businesses 18 times. And what I want to do is continue the tax rates — the tax cuts that we put into place for small businesses and families.”
Obama reiterated, if re-elected, he would end the Bush-area tax cuts on incomes of more than $250,000 as part of a balanced approach to cut the deficit. The president pledged to cut nearly $3 from the budget for every $1 he’d raise in taxes. Romney dismissed the idea the idea of raising taxes, instead offering a simplified tax code with lower rates that would inspire small business to hire more people.
Other points of contention between the candidates included how to reform medicare. Obama said the Republican’s proposed voucher system will only put elders at risk and do nothing to keep costs down, while Romney pounced on Obama’s re-allocation of more than $700 million from the government program to fund the Affordable Care Act.
The last topic of the evening focused on the role of the federal government, something both campaigns have agreed this election could be a referendum on.
“The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe,” Obama said. “But I also believe that the government has the capacity, the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and creat ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed.”
Romney agreed with national security is a top priority, but pivoted, “… we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we’re seeign right now is, in my view a — a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better jb than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working.”
Despite Obama’s lackluster performance, surrogates and representatives did their best to assure the media the president would win re-election on the economy most critics claim will doom him.
“The president is going continue to present a picture, that has at it’s core, a plan to rebuild the middle class in this country because that is how you rebuild the economy,” Axelrod said.