Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), have focused largely on their policy agenda, which was dominated by things they wanted to roll back — the health-care law, the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, income-tax rates.
The Democrats tend to cast the election less as a choice between ideas and more as a choice between people. Both Obama and Vice President Biden stressed their personal credibility, citing their work in office and the lessons of their upbringing. They attacked Romney and Ryan as aloof and uncaring.
“Look, folks, use your common sense,” Biden said Thursday night — talking specifically about Social Security, but also compressing the Democratic appeal into two sentences. “Who do you trust on this?”
The importance of the campaign’s first two debates was made clear in recent days by the zeal with which Obama and Romeny prepared for the third. They sequestered themselves in swing-state hotels — Romney in Ohio, Obama in Williamsburg — engaging in mock debates at the expense of real-life campaigning.
It was worth it, the campaigns calculated, because of the powerful impact the first debate had on the race. The slow and steady gains that Obama had consolidated last month were all but erased by his poor showing.
The vice-presidential debate, as usual, had less of an impact. Both sides were pleased with the performances by Biden and Ryan, but the sole vice-presidential debate does not appear to have fundamentally changed the race.
The final debate will be held Oct. 22 in Florida and will focus on foreign policy.
Still, even if the first debates left the race itself muddled, they served to clarify the messages at each campaign’s heart.
That’s because, for once, there were time limits. Some issues had to be left out. None of the candidates, for instance, has mentioned climate change, immigration or same-sex marriage.
And — just four years after Obama built his candidacy around a promise to change Washington’s partisan culture — this year, the two nominees had to be prompted into talking about it at all. Romney said he’d sit down with Democrats on Day One. But Obama noted that Romney also wants to start rolling back the health-care law that day.
So, Obama implied, Democrats would already be mad.
The arguments the two sides did put forward, in their limited time onstage, signaled sharply different theories of what voters want.
Romney and Ryan seemed to imagine the American electorate like a business trying to hire a contractor.