A passionate Mitt Romney routed a No Drama Obama in their first and most important debate Wednesday night. Most important because first impressions are so crucial and this is the first time the president and challenger faced off. Romney was every bit the president's equal, and then some. It is likely that the debate Wednesday will be the most watched and the topic was domestic policy, which most resonates with Americans.
The moderate sounding governor of Massachusetts returned, as Romney pivoted from the hard right candidate he had become during the Republican primary and the debates. He offered himself as the candidate, if elected president, who could work with the other party, as he had to do in Massachusetts when dealing with a legislature dominated by Democrats. He even turned a negative into a positive. Called on his lack of specifics about what loopholes and tax breaks he would eliminate to pay for his big cuts in tax rates, Romney said he would not dictate to congressional leaders how fashion a plan but work with them. He had perhaps the best line of the night, saying if a federal program was not worth borrowing money from China to pay for, he would cut it.
Obama came across as passive and professorial. Had a decision been made that going on the attack would be unpresidential? Where was the 47%? Where were the digs about off-shore bank accounts and Romney's 15% tax payment on his billions of dollars income? What about the war on women? The president didn't bring it. Oh, he did counter Romney's outrageous claim that he could cut tax rates, massively increase defense spending, and somehow bring down the deficit. And on balance the fact checkers, I suspect, will find more problems with Romney's claims. But Obama's counter punches were soft, unclear and ineffective.
These debates are far more about perception than facts and policies. And the clear perception was that Romney was fired up about getting America moving again, while Obama promised to, essentially, keep on keeping on. Fired up will win every time, as the Obama who campaigned and debated so effectively in 2008 seems to have forgotten.
Expect the poll numbers to move in Romney's favor. The big money will now stick with him. The base will be reinvigorated. Romney's performance will change the dynamics of the race and could keep it close right to Election Day. The pressure shifts to Obama to have a far better performance Oct. 16, but the Town Hall-style will make it more difficult to be aggressive.
Romney seized the moment.