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U.S. election scorecard: Mitt Romney ‘picked up bragging rights, but no ammunition’

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) and vice-presidential nominee U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) wave to the crowd at a campaign rally in Fishersville, Virginia October 4, 2012.


A whopping 67.2 million Americans tuned in this week to watch U.S. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney face off in their first presidential debate, breaking a 32-year-old record.

While the Obama campaign team would sooner forget what happened on the debate stage Wednesday night in Denver, Colo., there was some good news that trickled in: U.S. jobs numbers, released the first Friday of every month, showed that the U.S. economy added 114,000 jobs, pushing the unemployment rate below 8 per cent to 7.8 per cent.

Before those numbers were released, we invited five experts to share their Friday scorecard for each campaign with The Globe and Mail, focusing on the debate and post-debate spin.

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Do you agree with our experts? Tell us who you think won the week.

David Lublin is a professor in American University's department of government in Washington, D.C.

The Winner: Ronald Reagan. The Loser: Big Bird.

Mitt Romney revitalized his campaign with a smashing victory in the first presidential debate by borrowing heavily from the style as well as substance of the Republican hero, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

Like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Romney understood that it is more important to communicate big themes regarding the direction he'd like to take the country than policy specifics.

Even more important, like Mr. Reagan, he projected authoritative leadership, control, and comfort with his positions and himself – something new for Mr. Romney – even as he went after his opponent. In contrast, U.S. President Barack Obama seemed tired and tied down by the details.

Bad news for Big Bird. If elected, Romney promises to fire him when he cuts subsidies to PBS, the U.S. public broadcasting system.

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Diana Owen is an associate professor of political science and director of American Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Whether it was too little preparation, lack of enthusiasm, or as Al Gore suggested, the altitude in Denver, Barack Obama's lackluster debate performance has shifted the momentum of the campaign to Mitt Romney – at least in the short term.

Americans like a president who exhibits strength and leadership, and Mr. Obama appeared tired and reticent. In sharp contrast, Mr. Romney came out swinging and didn't let up. Mr. Romney managed to get in 541 more words than Mr. Obama in four fewer minutes.

Both camps spent Thursday attempting to corral the media agenda, and issued post-debate ads with messages they reinforced on the stump. Mr. Obama took the gloves off while campaigning in Colorado, and questioned Mr. Romney's authenticity and trustworthiness, a message central to a new TV ad.

The Republican National Committee released an ad to media organizations called "Smirk," that spotlighted Mr. Obama's uncomfortable and off-putting body language as Mr. Romney talked about the failure of Mr. Obama's policies.

As candidates veered off into discussions of Simpson-Bowles and Dodd-Frank legislative initiatives, voters no doubt honed in on the candidates' demeanour like they did when George H.W. Bush checked his watch during a debate in 1992, so the ad could resonate.

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For the record, moderator Jim Lehrer managed the debate about as well as the replacement referees handled the first three weeks of the NFL season. The candidates ran all over him, and the fans were not happy.

Paul J. Quirk holds the Phil Lind Chair in U.S. Politics and Representation at the University of British Columbia. A former staff member of the Brookings Institution and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he recently became a Canadian citizen.

Mr. Romney took Mr. Obama to school in the first presidential debate. After a month of blunders, embarrassments, and declining poll numbers, he is back in the race.

Mr. Romney spoke confidently and coherently, conveyed empathy for ordinary people, and stayed on message. He repeatedly portrayed himself as moderate. In several reversals at least of tone (if not also of substance) from his prior rhetoric, he emphasized the need for strong regulation of the financial sector, promised to maintain a public option in Medicare, endorsed some Obamacare regulations of the health insurance industry, and insisted he would not impose a tax cut that increased the deficit.

Mr. Obama, remarkably, appeared unprepared. He squirmed, grinned at odd times, and spoke hesitantly and without focus. Apparently caught off guard by Mr. Romney's tactics, he did not even deploy the most effective attack lines from his own stump speeches. The post-event polls gave the debate to Mr. Romney in a landslide.

Despite the one-sided result, it was not one of the rare debates that will have a major, lasting effect on the campaign. Most voters already knew that Mr. Romney is a strong debater. They already had opinions—positive or negative—about Mr. Obama's capabilities as a leader. So the debate will not change many voters' thinking about the candidates. Nor did Mr. Obama make any costly mistakes. Mr. Romney picked up bragging rights, but no ammunition.

In the end, Mr. Romney's moderate posture—a second re-invention of his political persona—may even give Mr. Obama new openings for effective attacks. In the short run, however, Mr. Romney should gain ground in the polls and find a renewed energy and enthusiasm for his campaign.

Michael Parkin is a Canadian and associate professor of politics at Oberlin College in Ohio. He studies the relationship between candidates, the media and voters.

Mr. Romney clearly won this week. Even before the debate, his poll numbers in certain swing states – Virginia and Florida – were starting to tick up and the NBC news poll was particularly encouraging for the Republican candidate in terms of closing the gap with Mr. Obama.

Mr. Romney was showing signs of life that had been lacking for a while, and it was becoming clear that he still had an outside chance in this race.

Wednesday's debate was, however, the turning point of the week, if not the election. Mr. Romney performed better than expected and Mr. Obama failed on almost every level imaginable. Mr. Romney was energized and connected his policies to a vision for America while the president stumbled through a weak defence of his administration with little passion or conviction.

Even the most ardent Democratic commentators had to concede defeat when their only job on debate night is to convince us that their candidate actually won (even if he didn't).

Things have clearly gone wrong when your spin team replaces its predictable narrative with apologies and a promise to do better next time. The race is not over yet but Mr. Romney took a large step towards the White House this week – a step Mr. Obama will have to counter quickly.

Donald Critchlow is a political historian and holds the Barry M. Goldwater Chair of American Institutions at Arizona State University.

Pundits and voter focus groups alike proclaimed Mitt Romney the winner in the first presidential debate on Wednesday night. The next day Democrats tried to spin Mr. Obama's feeble performance as a victory for Mr. Romney in style over substance.

Who could image that Mr. Romney could be accused of being a politician of high style after watching him in his long primary battle to win the Republican nomination, his convention speech, or more recently on the campaign trail?

Mr. Romney gives a good stump speech, but without a prepared speech he has been given to gaffes. If substance and knowing his brief are a matter of style, then Mr. Romney won.

The important question for both campaigns is whether Mr. Romney's performance will translate into a bounce in the polls. Before the debate, polls showed the race tightening again. If history tells us anything, presidential debates for incumbent presidents do not affect election outcomes.

The one exception perhaps is the 1976 debate between incumbent president Gerald Ford and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. Mr. Ford's assertion that Eastern-bloc countries were independent of Soviet control might have cost him the momentum he appeared to be picking up before the debate.

After a lackluster performance in his first debate with challenger Walter Mondale in 1984, Mr. Reagan easily won re-election in a year of peace and prosperity.

Mr. Obama is well-liked personally by voters and he has a base of 47 per cent or so within the electorate. Mr. Romney has a weak economy and high unemployment working for him. He appeared presidential and appealed to independent voters with his debate message. Did this do the trick for him? We will see.

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