In the aftermath of the last presidential debate, we can draw a number of conclusions from the candidates’ behavior and rhetoric.
1. President Obama is in some state of duress, realizing he lacks an agenda. His repackaged binder of ideas got a thumbs down from the skeptical media:
2. The president didn’t attempt in Monday’s debate to respond to Romney’s citations of Obama apologies or to his jab about telling Russian leaders that he’d have more “flexibility” after the election. Plainly, the Obama team doesn’t have a good argument for those points, neither of which it wants to spend much time debating.
3. Obama hit the campaign trail immediately and invoked the “Romnesia” taunt. After a test debate in which he repeatedly tried and failed to bait Romney, it is telling that he remains stuck on these juvenile barbs.
4. Republicans are capitalizing with statements (and ads sure to follow) on Obama’s slam against rebuilding our Navy. As a political matter, the Romney camp sees this as a significant gaffe for the president in places like Newport News.
5. As in the town-hall debate, the Romney camp thinks the moments when Romney looked straight into the camera to lay out his agenda are compelling for undecided voters. It is no surprise the campaign turned part of his closing argument into an ad.
6. A number of conservative hawks (this one included) would have dearly loved to see Obama taken down on his shifting statements about Libya. Several said to me it was not “what I would have done.” But there was consensus among many that I spoke with that Romney did the strategic thing. As with economic conservatives, Romney is getting some slack from the base, which now feels it is on the cusp of victory.
7. Both camps know that Obama got the sequestration answer wrong. The idea of putting defense on the chopping block came from the White House during the budget ceiling talks and, moreover, Obama signed the bill. Republicans jumped on the suggestion that it's all going to get fixed. Reuters reports:
A spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said: “We were all surprised by the President saying that the sequester ‘will not happen’ given that he still hasn’t presented a plan to make sure it ‘will not happen.’ ”
“While the Republican-led House has already taken action, Democrats in the Senate haven’t even passed a budget, and the President has presented no plan to prevent the defense cuts.” The divided Congress is controlled in the House of Representatives by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats.
David Plouffe, White House senior adviser, was quoted suggesting to reporters in the spin room after Monday night’s debate that Obama was merely expressing the same desire as everyone else. “No one wants it to happen. ... No one thinks it should happen,” he said.
8. Obama was roundly bashed by mainstream media figures for his remarks accusing Romney of wanting to keep troops in Iraq. In fact Romney was right: Obama tried but failed to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement.
9. The Romney camp became convinced after the first and second debates that, so long as Romney answered questions authoritatively and gave voters some detail, it really didn’t matter whether Obama was alert (second debate) or not (first debate). Focus-group testing and poll progress after the second debate showed them that Romney had solidified his gains, and they expect the same will occur after last night’s debate.
10. After all the talk in the primaries of Romney gaffes and misstatements (which continued into this August), Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) went through four debates, six hours total, with no noteworthy gaffe or mistake. (The closest was the missed opportunity on Libya in the second debate.) After each of the debates, the Obama team had more “cleanup” to do than the Romney camp.
Romney’s campaign is confident it is on the road to the White House. Whether its confidence is misplaced or Obama can pull a very large rabbit out of the hat in the next 14 days remains to be seen.
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