Stevens has argued for months that Obama not taking ownership of his record would be his biggest obstacle to reelection. He said the debate proved that. “I don’t think [Obama] had a particularly bad debate,” he said. “He has a bad record.”
Stevens said polls show a virtual tie nationally and noted that challengers often don’t overtake an incumbent until the very end of the campaign. Obama advisers stressed that Romney still has a narrow path through the battleground states to win the 270 electoral votes he needs and they seemed determined to make that part of whatever narrative comes out of Wednesday’s exchange.
Democrats were sobered by how the president did during the debate but think that fundamentals still work in his favor. Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said Romney’s victory was “convincing, but hardly changed the race.” He said that the Republican’s performance probably would win over some GOP-leaning independents who had been wavering or tilted toward Obama, but that underlying forces will help the president.
“That said,” he added, “I think the president will have to be much more passionate about the changes he will bring, and bolder. In our dial tests, his best scores were right at the beginning when he laid out four things he would do. People are still looking for what the candidates will do. Obama will have to show much more.”
Devine said the effect of the debate is taking away Democrats’ hope that Obama might score a big victory in November and help other party members in down-ballot races. “That huge opening may now be lost if Romney makes up ground or, even worse, if it looks like he will win,” he said. “People want progress and to turn the page after 11 years of doubt, and last night Romney looked more like the guy who could and would turn that page for them.”
Said Steve Rosenthal, a Democratic strategist with ties to organized labor: “Romney is a top-notch debater and the president had an off night. Debates are like speed bumps — you have to slow down to get past them but then you can resume your normal cruising speed. The public is evenly divided, and this is going to be a race to the end. Now it’s onto the next [debate], but hopefully last night was a wake-up call to anybody on our side who had grown overconfident or complacent.”
It will take days for the impact of the exchange to filter through the electorate. Only then will it become clear whether or how much it changed things. Romney far exceeded expectations, and for now that has made this a different contest.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.