Having had a night's sleep to reflect on things, Tuesday night's debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is starting to feel more like the challenger scored a narrow victory.
The instant analysis, which I helped provide as part of the U.S. News & World Report opinion team's live blogging of the event, lends itself to snap judgments made in the heat of the moment. What matters more is what people remember the next day, even as everything both candidates said and everything both candidates did is analyzed to death.
Certainly, President Obama turned in a much more polished, much more comfortable performance. The format was better suited to him than to Romney, who at times seem uncomfortable fighting for the chance to be heard over both the president and the moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley. But in looking at what each candidate said, give the points to Romney for this simple reason: Both candidates spent more time talking about what Romney would do or wanted to do or had done than was spent on Obama's record.
Admittedly, and I have my own preferences here. Obama doesn't have much to talk about—at least not much that will help him win re-election, something Romney made clear in one answer that provided a litany of the deficiencies of his presidency including the decline in household income, the rise in health insurance rates, the increase of the number of people on food stamps to an all time high, the increase in the federal debt, and on and on and on. It made for a pretty convincing argument, one that people will remember and one for which Obama lacked a convincing response.
Much of the post-debate discussion is focusing on the heated and lengthy exchange between Obama and Romney on Libya, in which the GOP nominee was making considerable headway until Crowley threw herself in front of the president, taking the bullet for him by breaking Romney's momentum on the issue.
Even Crowley now admits that Romney was more right than wrong when he said the president took two weeks to call the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the murder of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans a preplanned terrorist act. By jumping in as she did, challenging what Romney was saying, she took the GOP candidate off message. Romney backed down for a simple, understandable reason: When in doubt, stop. Had Crowley allowed the exchange to continue, it might have produced a totally different outcome.
The debate was not, as most people are saying Wednesday morning, a game-changer. That also works to Romney's favor. In my considered opinion the debate that Obama partisans saw and the debate the rest of the country saw are two different animals. It may lead to overconfidence on the part of the president's campaign team, even as the polls are moving in Romney's direction. Watching the president, I could not help but recall a sign my grandmother had in her kitchen when I was growing up: "Stop talking while I'm interrupting!" it said, which seems to me to be a convenient way to encapsulate Obama's debate strategy.
Romney posed good questions to the president which he did not even try to answer. One concerned the number of drilling permits his administration had issued as part of its so-called support for the domestic oil industry. Another had to do with how Obama's pension was invested. The president has been extremely critical of Romney's investments in China but has he any of his own? It's a fair question, given the intensity of the attacks against the former Massachusetts governor.
Style and polish only count for so much. It's what people remember, what they take away from the debates that really shapes how they are going to vote. Most of the memorable moments work to Romney's favor—even his supposed stumble on Libya since (1) he was arguably right and (2) because it will keep people talking about what happened, which even the administration's most senior officials have to admit is starting to get embarrassing.