By Robert Schlesinger |
Tingling feeling? Not so much for Chris Matthews. The MSNBC commentator was like a parent whose kid brought home a bad report card after President Obama delivered a lackluster performance in the first of the three presidential debates last night in Denver.
"Where was Obama tonight," asked Matthews, who has carried the president's water--with a tingling feeling up his leg--for going on five years now. "What was he doing?"
What he was doing was letting his challenger back in the race. The fading Mitt Romney, the one who can't get out of his own way, whose campaign seemed to be reeling, particularly in battleground states, is no more. Today, he is surging, and the wind is clearly at his back.
Make no mistake, this was a game-changer. CNN said 67 percent of those who watched thought challenger Mitt Romney won--the highest percentage since the question was first asked in 1984. He won among independents and the undecided. On taxes, the economy, the budget deficit, and the reach of government, he outperformed the president by double-digit margins.
Frank Luntz, the Republican message man who conducts focus groups during debates, said he had never seen a group move so forcefully toward candidate as his participants moved toward Mitt Romney last night.
Romney became more likeable, more plausible, more electable. He controlled the tone of the debate--even rewriting the rules under which moderator Jim Lehrer conducted it. Lehrer seemed up to the task of stopping President Obama from exceeding the time rules--but not Romney. His responses were forceful, factual, and friendly. He seemed to enjoy being there, to relish the moment. Even The Washington Post as consistent a President Obama cheerleader as can be found in the media, admitted on page 1 today that the debate changed everything.
As for the president, he hesitated to make eye contact, seemed concerned with regurgitating talking points rather than engaging his challenger and came across as diffident, indifferent, and unprepared.
It's not over, of course. There are two more debates between Romney and the president, plus the vice presidential debate next week. Rep. Paul Ryan can't afford to overlook Vice President Biden, an experienced politician. And Romney must deliver two more performances at least as good as last night's--and probably better.
He can't count on President Obama to be unprepared again. The president won't be able to pick up a paper or turn on a TV today without being reminded he got his clock cleaned before 55 million viewers.
As Gallup reminds us, debates don't always make a lot of difference in election results. But this is one case where they well could. Romney had a good night; he needs to have at least two more.
About Ford O'Connell Republican Strategist, Conservative Activist, and Political Analyst
Lara Brown Assistant Professor at Villanova University
Jamal Simmons Principal at The Raben Group
Brandon Rottinghaus Associate Professor at the University of Houston