Mitt Romney showed a strong performance in the first televised debate. The Republican challenger demonstrated that he is on a par with President Barack Obama. The race for the White House continues to be wide open.
The expectations could hardly have been any higher for Mitt Romney before this debate. This was the last chance for President Barack Obama's Republican challenger to gain ground in the race, observers said in the last few days - especially in view of the latest mistakes the former governor of Massachusetts had made.
Both candidates were in a neck-and-neck race. Obama had even taken the lead in several decisive states. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and one of those Republicans the Romney campaign team sent to TV talk shows last Sunday, said the "whole race is going to be turned upside down" as a result of Romney's performance in this debate.
It wasn't quite so dramatic on Wednesday evening at the University of Denver. But Romney was able to score some points in this first of three debates. A CNN snap poll said 67 percent of registered voters surveyed thought Romney won the debate, compared with 25 percent for Obama. Romney appeared feisty but not unpleasantly aggressive as he discussed the economy, health care reform and the role of the government over one-and-a-half hours with Obama.
Romney accused Obama, among other things, of being too preoccupied with health care reform in the first two years of his presidency, instead of battling the country's high unemployment. The president was initially at pains to counter the attacks. He appeared irritated and apparently needed time to warm up.
Too many numbers
Both sides argued for a long stretch about tax policies and the budget deficit, in part getting lost in the details in the process and accusing each other of basing their arguments on incorrect figures. Obama, for example, said Romney's tax plan would mean $5 trillion dollars in tax cuts. This would not be possible without additional revenue, or debt. Romney on the other hand denied that he planned cuts to this degree and stressed "there'll be no tax cut that adds to the deficit." He added, though, that he was not going to reduce "the share of taxes paid by high-income people."
Both repeated well-known arguments: Romney wants to repeal the health care and bank reforms, Obama is asking for more time to push through these and other reforms. Both men presented the presidential election as decisive for America's future, as the choice between two different outlooks.
"The private market and individual responsibility always work best," Romney said in reference to health care. But he admitted that regulation was essential in the banking sector. Obama on the other hand said the federal government had "the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed."
An above-the-belt debate
Both opponents refrained from personally attacking each other. They even avoided any sharp or even striking statements - surprising in these times of quotable television moments. Romney congratulated Obama on his 20th wedding anniversary. The president himself had opened the debate by wishing his wife, Michelle, who was sitting in the audience a happy anniversary. "A year from now, we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people," he noted.
The Romney team was satisfied with its candidate's performance. "It was an outstanding night for Mitt Romney," Republican senator Rob Portman of battleground state Ohio told CNN. He had done what was necessary to reach independent voters.
Obama's people on the other hand tried to play down the mediocre performance of their candidate and appeared satisfied.
"The President spoke directly to voters tonight about his vision for an economy that grows from the middle out," campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in an email. He accused Romney of being "unable and unwilling" to explain the details of his tax cut plans or the rules he would put in place after repealing Wall Street reform or Obamacare. Indeed, the debate brought no new insights in this respect.
Political strategist Stanley Greenberg from consulting firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner said Romney had strengthened his position among independent voters who tended to be closer to the Republicans. Greenberg surveyed voters in Denver during and after the debate. Romney was able to gain ground on several points among this group, which consisted of two-thirds women. Following the 90-minute debate, this group granted Romney more leadership qualities and economic competence. He was even able to score in the areas of energy and tax policy. However, Greenberg added: "Romney couldn't win over one voter who was previously supporting Obama."
As the saying goes, after the match is before the match. The next debate between Obama and Romney takes place on October 16 in Hempstead, New York in a town-hall type session. This means not only the moderator, but also the audience will be able to ask questions. It will focus on domestic and foreign policy. Before that, however, Vice-president Joe Biden will meet Romney's candidate Paul Ryan for a debate in Danville, Kentucky on October 11.