The first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney was supposed to be an opportunity for the suave and super-likeable incumbent to make mincemeat of the stiff and stuffy fossil seeking to replace him in the White House.
It took a mere 90 minutes to transform the U.S. presidential election from what looked like a lopsided Clinton v. Dole replay into something akin to Carter v. Reagan redux.
Many thought the 2012 race was shaping up to resemble 1996, when a slick Bill Clinton coasted past the stodgy Bob Dole. But by the debate’s end on Wednesday, 1980 was on people’s minds.
A sullen and irritable Mr. Obama channelled Jimmy Carter, feeling underappreciated, overburdened and imposed upon. A smiley and avuncular Mr. Romney evoked Ronald Reagan’s optimism and debunked his image as a scissor-happy ideologue. (Although Big Bird, whose network could lose its federal funding despite Mr. Romney’s avowed affection for the avian icon, probably did not see it that way).
As a buoyant Mr. Romney basked in the rave reviews of his performance, Mr. Obama tried to explain how the favourite going into the debate took such a shellacking.
The best he could come up with? An imposter showed up on Wednesday.
“When I got onto the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney,” Mr. Obama told a rally in Denver.
“The man onstage [Wednesday] night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year.”
Mr. Romney, like Mr. Obama, has multiple guises. But if he can persuade voters, through two more debates and a month of campaigning, that the version of him who showed up in Denver is the real Romney, he may yet have a chance.
If Mr. Obama is to avoid giving him one, he needs to lose the chip on the shoulder he exhibited on Wednesday. As Mr. Carter discovered in 1980, no one likes a killjoy. And in tough times, Americans want a strategy from their president, not a lecture.
Overnight polls showed that most of the 60 million Americans who watched the encounter came away with a favourable impression of Mr. Romney and considered him a stronger debater and leader than the President.
For all the purported disagreement between the candidates over policy, the final choice of voters who have yet to make up their mind – or remain amenable to changing it – is likely to come down to a question of confidence. Mr. Obama did little to win them over. Mr. Romney suddenly looked like a credible substitute for the incumbent.
“In elections involving sitting presidents, two questions are key: First, is a majority of the electorate willing to consider replacing the incumbent? If the answer is no … there is nothing much that challenger can do. But if the answer is yes, then the second question becomes decisive: Does the challenger represent an acceptable alternative?” former Bill Clinton adviser and Brookings Institution senior fellow William Galston wrote in a post-debate commentary.
“Romney presented himself as a reasonable man. … He calmly rebutted familiar attacks on his proposals. He was clear and forceful, tough but respectful. He sounded knowledgeable. He conveyed an impression of competence and experience as a potential manager of the economy.”
For Mr. Obama, the verdict on his debate performance was as brutal as it was unanimous. Despite the abundance of free advice available to him going into the encounter, he seemed to take none of it.
He was counselled to be amiable, not professorial; upbeat, not downcast. Mr. Romney followed that advice and won.
For voters watching the split-screen coverage, it was a case of sad versus glad.
“[Mr. Obama] has myriad skills as a thinker, as a speaker and as a President. But this episodic unwillingness to connect, to show up, while entirely human, puts him in peril,” New Yorker editor and Obama biographer David Remnick wrote after the debate.
Luckily for Mr. Obama, he is a far better campaigner than Mr. Romney. And it may only be a few days before the Republican candidate once again puts his foot in his mouth.
Besides, Mr. Romney was helped by the absence of any discussion of social issues or immigration during the debate on domestic policy. That is unlikely to be the case during the Oct. 16 town-hall debate. Mr. Romney might not look so moderate then.
The Oct. 22 debate on foreign policy presents challenges for both candidates. While Mr. Obama generally gets high marks from voters for his conduct of foreign policy, his administration’s controversial handling of last month’s deadly attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya risks subjecting him to an uncomfortable grilling during that encounter.
Until then, Mr. Romney has an opportunity to build on his success. Many voters are looking at him in a new light. If Friday’s jobs report shows little progress, Mr. Romney’s warning of more of the same during a second Obama term will resonate in ways it might not have before the debate.
The Carter-Reagan comparison may be overblown. Mr. Romney is not as gifted a politician as Mr. Reagan and Mr. Obama is much better at it than Mr. Carter. But if the analogy has legs it is because the performances each candidate gave were eerily similar to those of Mr. Reagan and Mr. Carter in their sole 1980 debate.
Back then, Mr. Carter was an incumbent prone to bouts of self-pity and facing an electorate underwhelmed by his presidency but wary of his Brylcreemed bronco challenger. Mr. Reagan put them at ease in that debate. He sprang ahead of Mr. Carter in the polls after the debate and, barely a week later, he was president-elect.
Mr. Romney has more than four weeks, and two debates, to go. But in the afterglow of this one encounter, he looks more like Ronald Reagan than Bob Dole.