DENVER — Wednesday’s presidential debate was a tale of four candidates: the two men who stood onstage for 90 minutes and the two rivals Americans have seen for months on the campaign trail and in television commercials. There was no comparison.
Start with President Obama, who may have lost the exchange in as lopsided a manner as any incumbent in recent times. Others have stumbled in the first debates of their reelection campaigns. Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2004 come to mind. Both had bad moments that cost them their debates.
Obama didn’t lose because he had a few bad moments. Challenger Mitt Romney dictated the tone and the tempo of the evening, at times acting as candidate and moderator. The president fell behind in the opening minutes and never really found his footing. He lacked energy stylistically and he lacked crispness substantively. He sounded like he does in his news conferences: at times discursive and often giving answers that were longer than necessary.
This wasn’t the Obama seen in his campaign commercials or in the daily scrum with Romney’s operation. His team has waged an extraordinarily aggressive effort from the moment Romney wrapped up the Republican nomination.
Given his vulnerability over the state of the economy, Obama and his advisers sought to define Romney before Romney could define himself. It seemed to work. The campaign attacked the Republican for his work at Bain Capital, for not immediately releasing his tax returns, for putting money in a Swiss bank account and in the Cayman Islands.
Obama mentioned none of that Wednesday. It was as though he left his best attack lines in a folder backstage. Inexplicably, he never mentioned Romney’s recently unearthed “47 percent” comment — his line that nearly half of all Americans pay no federal income taxes, that they consider themselves victims, that they’re dependent on government and that they’re unwilling to take control of their lives.
If those issues weren’t worth mentioning during the debate, why has Obama’s campaign spent the past four months and hundreds of millions of dollars driving home that message? Perhaps his advisers think they’ve done all the damage they need do with those attacks. There is evidence that they’ve stuck. Perhaps the president did not want to project a persona that conflicts with the candidate who captivated the country with a message of hope and inspiration four years ago.
Whatever the case, his performance left Democrats wondering what happened. As one strategist put it in an e-mail message Thursday morning, “ughhh.”
Tad Devine, another strategist who was a senior adviser to Democratic nominee John F. Kerry in 2004, sent an e-mail with this assessment of the president’s apparent strategy Wednesday: “I assume they had a strategy not to engage or get too personal. He was like he had been in many previous debates, but in these very different times, cool and calm is not as powerful as it once was. They have to recalibrate or risk being pushed aside by the new and improved Romney.”