I watched the Wednesday night’s presidential debate with a group of wine-sipping West Coast Obama fans who were stunned by the way Mitt Romney dominated the stage.
Over the 90 minutes of the debate, Romney submerged the right-wing image he had adopted in the Republican primary race and came off as a reasonable, moderate technocrat who differs with President Obama only about the means to get to the ends they both seek.
For his part, Obama was pleasant and professorial, as if he were merely engaged in a ponderous academic discussion, rather than a political grudge match with enormous consequences. Faced with the chance to deliver the coup de grace to Romney’s flailing campaign, Obama appeared to have left his rhetorical weapons at the door.
Without the president calling him on it, Romney expressed a newfound concern for the poor that differed dramatically from the disdainful tone of his private remarks about the 47% of Americans he describes as dependent, indolent victims. He rolled over debate moderator Jim Lehrer and took the fight to Obama on everything from green-energy funding to Obamacare.
To be fair to the friends and acquaintances who gathered around the TV with me, they are not knee-jerk acolytes of the Hope and Change Messiah. Highly educated, they hold a range of political views and come from diverse backgrounds. Still, I’m pretty sure there were no Romney voters in the group -- at least not when the debate began.
When it was over, we went around the room and everyone offered an analysis of what had just happened.
Our hostess, Cindy, had been whispering under her breath throughout the debate that Romney was wiping the floor with Obama. Cindy is a Hillary Rodham Clinton fan and has never believed Obama possesses the same political skills as either one of the Clintons.
This night, she said she thought the president had missed numerous opportunities to go on the attack, instead merely waiting to respond to whatever Romney threw at him. Romney, meanwhile, was smart, calculated, well-coached and commanding, she said. If she were an undecided voter and all she knew about Romney was what he showed in the debate, she would vote for him.
Cindy, by the way, was probably the most liberal person in the room.
Colleen observed that Romney looked like he wanted to be there while Obama did not. Her husband, Richard, was a little harder on Romney. Sure, Romney was good on the riposte, he said, but he is unconnected with the real life of the country. “Mitt Romney is as inauthentic as I can imagine,” he said. After months of speaking nary a word about his healthcare program in Massachusetts, suddenly he was embracing it on debate night in his guise as a reborn moderate.
Lisa thought body language was a huge factor. “Obama was listless,” she said, while Romney was expansive and “advancing.” Lisa invented a new word to describe Romney’s facial expressions: “schmearziness” -- the half-smiling, smarmy look Romney gave Obama as he listened to him talk.
Natalie thought people uneducated on the issues would have a hard time deciding who won the debate, but Ed said it was not hard to pick a winner. “Obama was in the driver’s seat this morning,” he said, “I don’t think so anymore.” For those without a command of policy details, “facts are facts, but perception is reality.” The perception of Romney as a winner will inspire people to start writing checks for his campaign, Ed concluded.
Stan agreed, observing that the big money from conservative political action committees that had been moving away from Romney will now move back.
One big question in the room after the debate was whether Romney would get away with what amounted to another round of flip-flops and denials of plain facts -- such as his contention that his trillions of dollars of proposed revenue reductions would not reward the rich and add to the deficit.
It is not always easy to predict how a debate performance will play among the broader electorate, but if the reaction of the folks in my friends’ living room is an indicator, it appears that a race that had been running the president’s way has just taken a sharp turn in the opposite direction.
A few days ago, Obama told a crowd that Romney is a very good debater while characterizing himself as just “OK.” Apparently, he was not just being modest.