Romney won debate and, more importantly, the media narrative

About a week before the first of the presidential debates, some of President Obama’s most ardent supporters seemed to already be making plans for a second inaugural. The “47%” video appeared to expose Mitt Romney for the plutocrat he was. Polls had him losing nationally and in most battleground states. Some Democrats already had begun shoveling dirt on the Republican’s grave.

It was at about that time that Neal Gabler, the author and political commentator, made what proved to be a very astute prediction in a Los Angeles Times column: Romney’s resurrection was just around the corner.

Gabler based this not on secret polling data or his unusual empathy with the American people (though he may possess that power too) but from a memory for campaigns past, which revealed, as he wrote, “an iron law of American presidential campaign coverage, that what goes up must come down and, conversely, what is down must go up.”

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Having covered a few of these quadrennial pageants myself, I couldn’t agree more with Gabler’s thesis: The political press loathes the status quo and will jump on the slightest evidence of shifting fortunes to pronounce a “game change.” Preferred narratives have these game changers occurring at the campaign’s big tentpole events — the selection of a vice presidential running mate, the political conventions and, especially, the debates.

What we have seen in the week since the first debate is just the sort of “media bounce” that Gabler wrote about. By consensus, and even Obama’s own estimation, he didn’t do very well at getting his message out when he confronted Romney in Denver.

Obama advisors had been saying privately and publicly before the debate that they anticipated what would follow in part by watching other campaigns and even the coverage of the Republican primary season. Romney would repeatedly be described as both the front-runner and a troubled candidate, who just didn’t connect with voters. He then would win another primary, or perform well in a debate, and pundits would declare he had been reborn. That story line prevailed as he dispatched one challenger after another — Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

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Romney won with a performance Wednesday because he seemed like plausible presidential timber. Content aside, the showing on a national stage made him appear far more competent and far less conservative than he did during the primary season—when his tough-guy rhetoric made it sound like he would knock down every regulation in sight, cut taxes, even for the wealthiest, and force as many illegal immigrants as possible to “self deport.”

Gabler’s column correctly needled the press for “magnifying small blips into large mountains,” or, he might have said, for hyping those blips into mountains. No doubt something changed with the debate. Many media figures have not had the patience to wait to see how lasting that change will be. Their push to be first to declare a new direction for the campaign effectively has created a new direction for the campaign. Romney is the beneficiary.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews went into paroxysms over all the chances Obama missed to call out Romney for changing his positions. Writing in the Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan asked Monday, “Did Obama just throw the entire election away?” He hammered the president for being “too arrogant” to prepare adequately for the debate and made it sound as if a recovery was an extreme longshot.

“A sitting president does not recover from being obliterated on substance, style and likability in the first debate and get much of a chance to come back,” Sullivan wrote. “He has, at a critical moment, deeply depressed his base and his supporters and independents are flocking to Romney in droves.”

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History suggests that debates can move the needle permanently, though not that often. No one knows how the two candidates will perform in their next debate Oct. 16. No one knows how energized were not only Romney supporters but Obama backers, threatened by the new narrative.

For the last three national elections, America has been closely divided in choosing the president. Roughly half tend to vote for the Democrat and half for the Republican. The presidency comes down to who takes more votes in a few crucial states, especially Ohio and Florida. All that remains essentially the same, despite the considerable hoo-hah over the game-changing debate of a week ago.

Mitt Romney doubtless has a little more bounce in his step after last week’s debate and his emergence from what some were calling a near-death experience. Many covering the campaign also have the race they’ve long pined for. Now it feels like the kind of 15-round brawl that’s much more fun to cover than the walk-over they thought they had on their hands. But don’t be surprised if now — with the contender coming on strong — the arbiters of the Fourth Estate begin to detect signs of life in the champ.

TRANSCRIPT: Read Obama, Romney’s arguments

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