It always comes as a surprise, but incumbent presidents tend not to do very well in formal campaign debates. Gerald Ford stumbled against Jimmy Carter in 1976, Carter was pummeled by Ronald Reagan in 1980, Reagan fumbled in his first try in 1984, and so on.
On Wednesday evening, Barack Obama showed that he was no exception to the rule. Maybe he underestimated Mitt Romney, even though Romney did well in a long string of Republican primary debates last spring. Maybe the president has gotten unused to being challenged directly or -- with crises across the Middle East -- didn’t spend as much quality time on preparation as his opponent.
The explanation for Obama’s lackluster performance (and reporters will demand one) won’t matter. Even the details of the 90-minute debate, which got pretty wonky on taxes and Medicare, won’t matter for long. Obama did land a couple of zingers -- notably when he asked whether Romney was withholding details of his proposals “because they’re so good” -- but that won’t matter much either.
What matters, at least for a week or so, is that Romney has given the news media a new narrative. Until Wednesday, the campaign story was that Obama was building an apparently unshakable lead; now Obama looks as if he’s lost a step and Romney’s showing new life. That’s what pundits across the ideological spectrum said almost unanimously after the Denver debate. And not only the pundits; CBS News ran an instant poll of uncommitted voters, and they picked Romney as the winner of the debate, 46% to 22% (with 32% calling it a tie).
Winning one debate doesn’t guarantee victory on election day, of course. If that were the case, we’d have fond memories of the Walter Mondale presidency and the John Kerry administration.
But Wednesday’s strong showing by Romney does guarantee two consequences: At least for a week or so, this election will look closer than it did before. And at the next presidential debate, on Oct. 16, it’s a good bet that Obama will come out swinging.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus