A subdued and sometimes listless performance from President Obama may have given Mitt Romney the opening he needed to reshape the battle for the White House on Wednesday night.
Romney delivered a vivid and strong showing in Denver for the first of the three presidential debates. But Obama’s weakness was just as notable. His night was virtually devoid of memorable lines and at times his responses meandered.
Obama was also strikingly reluctant to take the fight to his challenger, at no time mentioning Romney’s controversial comments about “47 percent” of Americans who the former Massachusetts governor said thought of themselves as “victims” in a covertly-filmed speech that emerged last month.
Obama also sought to find common ground between the two men at times, at one point noting that he and his challenger had “a somewhat similar position” on Social Security.
In the aftermath, even liberal and Democratic commentators acknowledged that Romney had the better night.
On CNN, Democratic strategist James Carville said: “I had one overwhelming impression. I did everything I could not to reach it, but it looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there. ... Obama gave me the impression that the whole thing was kind of a lot of trouble.”
Bill Maher, the liberal TV talk show host — and a big donor to the Obama-supporting super-PAC Priorities USA — said on Twitter that he believed Romney had won the debate, even though he argued that Obama “had the facts on his side.”
Maher also criticized the performance of the debate’s moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, as did many liberal commentators. But those complaints seemed akin to those of the cornermen for a losing boxer who protest about the referee.
Romney rocked Obama with several verbal punches. He referred to Obama’s overall worldview as one that put chimeric faith in “trickle-down government,” which Romney said is “not the right answer for America.”
The Republican also invoked a comment made by Vice President Biden earlier this week — though Romney did not mention Biden’s name — in telling Obama that middle-income Americans had been "buried" and "crushed” during the president’s first term.
Romney fought back against Team Obama’s portrayal of him as an out-of-touch plutocrat.
He repeatedly insisted that, though he favored cutting tax rates, he did not wish to reduce the overall share of tax revenue contributed by upper-income Americans.
Romney’s performance seemed testament to the value of exhaustive preparation — and a lot of recent practice. The former Massachusetts governor’s skills were sharpened by the 19 multi-candidate debates in which he participated during his pursuit of the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. He also spent several days in the lead-up to event locked in debate prep with his advisers.
By contrast, Obama resembled the unexceptional debater that he sometimes appeared to be during his 2008 Democratic primary encounters with then-Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE.
The question is just how much of an impact Romney’s forceful performance — and Obama’s enervated one — will have. More than 52 million people watched the first debate between then-Sen. Obama and Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE (R-Ariz.) for years ago. At least that number was projected to be watching Wednesday night.
However, there is considerable evidence that presidential debates tend to have a relatively modest impact on elections. And, in this year’s race, many polls have shown an even higher number of voters than usual apparently already locked into one camp or the other.
A statistical analysis by Nate Silver on his FiveThirtyEight blog earlier Wednesday suggested that challengers since 1976 have, on average, gained about 1.5 percentage points against an incumbent or member of the incumbent party after the first presidential debate.
But Romney’ supporters will note there have been some examples of a debate having a much greater impact, such as in 1980 and 2004, when Ronald Reagan and John KerryJohn KerryTo address China's coal emissions, the US could use a little help from its friends Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Storms a growing danger for East Coast Israel, Jordan, UAE sign pivotal deal to swap solar energy, desalinated water MORE respectively got a boost of about 3 percentage points post-debate.
A bump of that extent would effectively make the race a dead heat. In the Gallup tracking poll on Wednesday, Obama led Romney by 4 percentage points.
In the wake of the debate, conservatives were gleeful. “Way, way, way over my expectations!” one Republican strategist exulted to The Hill immediately after the debate ended.
Obama aides, meanwhile, sought to minimize the damage, acknowledging Romney’s impressive performance but trying to cast it as a matter of style rather than substance.
“Gov. Romney has always been good on the attack. You saw that during the primaries," the president’s top campaign strategist, David Axelrold, told NBC’s Brian Williams moments after the debate ended. "What he’s not very good at is offering specifics.”
Axelrod swerved away from a question from Williams as to whether he was happy with Obama’s “energy level” and “demeanor.”
Neutral observers agreed that Romney had the better night.
“I think Gov. Romney won the debate on points. He was the more aggressive debater and was on the offensive for much of the night,” Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan told The Hill. “I think President Obama was subdued and clearly playing defense. This was the equivalent of a prevent defense in football.”
“Romney did what he needed to do in this debate,” said professor David Lanoue of Columbus State University, who has written extensively about debates. “This was probably Romney’s best performance in eight years of debating.”
Obama, Lanoue added, “spent most of the time on the defensive, missed several opportunities to counterpunch, and seemed to pull his punches in some cases.”
The summary version of Wednesday night’s event was simple: Romney won.
The question the political world will now want answered is how much it matters.
— The Hill staff contributed to this report.