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By Stump Connolly

I guess those presidential campaigns are going to have to spend the last 300 million dollars in their coffers after all because Mitt Romney’s clear domination of the first presidential debate can only make a tight race even tighter.

Romney kicked off the first debate with a blizzard of statistics on taxes and the economy that snowballed through the night into a detailed critique of nearly every aspect of President Obama’s first term. The attack was bold but not offensive, sprinkled with the usual campaign trail anecdotes and laser-focused on the president’s record. If Romney’s facts and figures were not always accurate (Whose are in this campaign season?) they sounded smart and well-reasoned, especially in contrast to the President’s lackluster presentation of his own accomplishments, which seemed ripped from the well-worn pages of old stump speeches.

Pundits who have been asking for a substantive debate over policy and philosophy got what they wanted, and it wasn’t long before they began to regret it. “Man, Obama is boring and abstract,” Andrew Sullivan tweeted ten minutes in. “He’s putting us to sleep.” Ten minutes later, Ezra Klein, proprietor of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, also complained. “I don’t know how to parse this debate. Obama says Romney will do X. Romney says he won’t do X. It comes down to who do you trust.”

By the end of the debate, the public’s answer was clear: A CNN insta-poll of registered voters “who actually watched the debate” declared Romney the winner by a 67-25 margin over Obama; and on the critical question of who the public trusts more, Romney for the first time in months beat Obama 46-45 percent.

I have a notebook filled with comments from political reporters who came to the same conclusion, and CBS conducted a similar telephone poll that declared Romney the debate winner by a nearly identical margin. All in all, it was a very bad night for Obama.

And yet, even though 50 million people probably watched the debate, it’s still unclear how much it will shift the balance in an electorate where 93 percent of voters have already made up their minds.

Romney Amped

In the week leading up to the debate, the Romney campaign was looking for some way to stem his drop in the polls, and the press was searching for some peg to hang a Romney comeback story on. “Now they have something to work with,” Katty Kay of the BBC tweeted.

I’m not sure how Romney pulled off this trick. I am as confused as ever by his plan to cut taxes 20 percent, raise military spending by $2 trillion, and reduce the federal deficit at the same time. This is a plan that cries out for details. But he offered none––other than a pledge to defund Big Bird. Instead, he promised that he would not cut any taxes that contributed to a larger deficit, and salted in two more promises not to cut taxes on the wealthy and not to raise taxes on the middle class. The answer left Obama (and me) dumbfounded. “For 18 months, he’s been running on this tax plan. Now five weeks before the election, his big bold idea is ‘never mind?” Obama said. But instead of challenging Romney, Obama launched into his own plan for small business tax cuts.

The President’s remark was so weak it slid right by Romney. And it didn’t matter. Romney was on to his next bold idea, consolidating job training programs, and the next one, saving 750,000 small business jobs, and the next one, reducing 90 billion in federal subsidies for alternative energy. For much of the debate, Romney was a man with an idea a minute, some backed by private consultant studies, others buoyed by a bit of convoluted efficiency-expert logic.  But what all the ideas had going for them was Romney’s enthusiasm.

The net takeaway was that Romney was a man of ideas and Obama a defender of the status quo. “Ten million watts of smart and reasonable here,” Mike Murphy, Romney’s media savvy political consultant, crowed in one tweet. “He’s not cuddly, but competent.”

Obama Sluggish

On many occasions, as Romney spoke, the split-screen showed Obama staring down at his notes, as if Romney’s ideas were too small to be of consequence. The President came into the debate expecting to catch Romney in the web of a $5 trillion tax and spending cut that didn’t add up, and found himself, instead, talking about the rounding errors of PBS funding. But when it was his turn, Obama seemed tired, his own logic a blurry mesh of good intentions.

“One word of advice for Barack Obama before his next debate: Caffeine,” Roger Simon wrote in Politico at the end of the night. “For much of the debate, it appeared as if Obama, the former professor, and not Obama, the presidential candidate, was on stage . . . His thoughts seemed to range from lengthy to endless.”

The president’s failure to engage Romney not only in his own defense but on points his own campaign has hammered over the summer – the Caymen Island holdings in Romney’s tax returns or the 47 percent video – is a mistake not likely to reappear in the next round of debates.

34 Days and Counting

If you are counting, there are three more to come: Next Thursday, October 11, the vice presidential candidates will face off in Danville, Kentucky; on October 16, Romney and Obama will meet again in a town hall style debate at Hofstra University in New York; and on October 22 they will meet for the last time in Boca Raton, Florida to talk about foreign policy in a discussion moderated by CBS’s Bob Schieffer.

Obama’s best chance to redeem himself will be the Hofstra University appearance. Not only is the town hall forum more suited to his style, but the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, is apt to spread the topics around in a way that will prevent the filibuster-like answers Romney provided Wednesday. (It is by no means an excuse for Obama’s performance, but PBS moderator Jim Lehrer was almost as much a no-show at this debate as the president. At no point did he jump in to correct mistaken facts or ask follow-up questions. But that may well have been his intent: to get a robust discussion going then get out of the way.)

What Obama will have to accept, however, is that these debates are more important than he anticipated. Romney won Wednesday night by preparing his arguments, and Obama lost because he didn’t. Campaign trail rallies, no matter how large the crowds, are no longer where the battle is being waged. It’s happening this month on television. In the debates and––unfortunately for those poor viewers in the swing states––in the TV ads that will now explode exponentially. Sorry about that, but Mitt Romney is back off the mat – and this baby isn’t over yet.


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