I don’t agree with pundits who said before last night’s debate that Romney had to win. As the challenger to a sitting president, all Mitt Romney had to do to win last night was simply to keep from losing. The ethos that the office itself brings to the incumbent, and Obama’s own reputation for eloquence, are tremendous advantages. So, the major goal of a challenger is to be perceived as being in the same league, and for that you only need a draw.
He easily accomplished that objective, and went even further, emerging as the clear winner of Round 1. How did he do it?
To avoid losing, any competitor must defeat the opponent’s strategy. The Obama strategy against Romney has three principal lines of attack:
Extremist? Romney had to show he is a reasonable person, and he accomplished this through his demeanor and his words. His demeanor was confident yet respectful, and he never once lost that hint of a smile, even when being attacked. He went out of his way on several occasions to stress his points of agreement with the President and even to praise some of his decisions and policies. When he did attack, it was directed against the policies, not the person. He cited his own success in working with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in Massachusetts.
Uncaring? Romney actually used more personal anecdotes than Obama to show that he had listened to ordinary people and even though he never used Clinton’s “feel your pain” line, he used words such as crushed and hurting.
No detail? This is where Romney had the clearest advantage. His answers were detailed and specific, and in delivering them he showed an impressive grasp of detail and memory. At one point, I thought he was going to have a Rick Perry moment, when he said, “The fourth thing is…” and his eyes rolled upward, but he pulled it out. Too much detail can definitely be a liability, but in this situation it was the right thing to do. We all know about Romney’s impressive record, but last night was the first time he showed the personal qualities that made that record possible.
To be sure, Romney also had some good fortune in the form of Obama’s performance last night. People will debate whether he was overconfident, or trying too hard to be his usual cool self, or just not as good in unscripted situations as he is behind a teleprompter, but he clearly left a lot on the table last night.
That said, Romney did one other thing that put him over the top. Like a fighter who attacks an opponent’s clear weakness, he stayed relentlessly on message, keeping to his key theme of job creation all night.
Round 2 is going to be so much fun! Will Obama come out swinging? Will Romney’s inexperience in foreign policy be an insurmountable obstacle?
Having said that, I have to say it was a pleasure to watch two intelligent and articulate individuals go at it last night. This was a debate I would not be embarrassed to have foreign audiences watching.