Most debates that we remember as being unusually lopsided have "moments." Gerald Ford saying, "There is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe." Ronald Reagan saying, "There you go again." Al Gore sighing. And sighing. And sighing.
Those moments matter because they become the shorthand for the media's subsequent discussion of the debate. But it was hard for me to think of any definitional moments, for either candidate, in last night's debate. Almost everyone -- myself included -- thought Obama came off listless and unprepared. He clearly lost the night. But he didn't make any big mistakes. Romney, by contrast, was aggressive and quick on his feet. But, more so than Obama, he might come to regret a few of the things he said.
There was a point in the debate, for instance, when Romney repeatedly insisted his Medicare reforms wouldn't touch current seniors. "If you're 60 or around 60 or older, you don't need to listen any further," he said with a smile. "Again," he said a moment later, "that's for future people, right, not for current retirees."
This is standard Republican fare, but it comes off rather badly, I think. When you keep saying that you wouldn't dare impose your plan on current retirees, it doesn't exactly signal that this is the kind of plan that people are actually going to like.
There was also an exchange over the tax break for moving companies overseas. Romney denied its existence. "Look, I've been in business for 25 years," he said. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant."
If Obama had been a better debater, the "I maybe need to get a new accountant" line, given Romney's unusually low tax rate, could have been devastating. As it is, I'd expect to see it in ads soon. And, for the record, that tax break really does exist, though it's not specifically for firms that move overseas. As Reuters explains, "What Obama was actually describing was a tax break for ordinary business expense, including deductions allowed for a company if it closes its plant in the United States and moves it to another country."
But insofar as the debate had any defining exchanges, it was the 40-minute back-and-forth in which Obama accused Romney of proposing a $5 trillion tax cut, Romney forswore any such plan, Obama insisted Romney did have that plan, Romney replied he would never even consider such a thing, etc and so on. The truth is that Romney has proposed a tax cut that would cost $5 trillion, but he's promised to figure out how to pay for it at some later date. Whether you think Romney should get credit for that promise is up to you. But the Obama campaign clearly thinks that that moment represents a vulnerability for Romney:
Conversely, Romney's Web site doesn't have any new ads up using debate clips, which confirms my sense that while Obama didn't acquit himself particularly well, he didn't say anything the Romney campaign sees much upside in jumping on.
But the Romney campaign is nevertheless feeling very good today, as they should. Almost 60 million people watched last night's debate. That means Romney's best night of the campaign happened before the single largest audience of the campaign. No ad the Obama team can release will be nearly as widely viewed.