DENVER — Mitt Romney needed the first presidential debate to go smoothly and without major bumps. Even his harshest critics in the Obama campaign acknowledged after the debate ended here Wednesday night that he hit those marks.
But he also exposed himself to new criticisms over his still-vague proposals. President Obama, who spent most of the night on the defensive, still got a few licks in of his own. His campaign said afterwards it didn’t expect Romney’s performance to change much.
Obama and Romney seemed eager to go at each other, blowing through the first 15 minute segment of the open-style format allotted for for jobs questions. Throughout the debate the two candidates confronted and questioned each other on issues ranging from taxes to Medicare to the deficit. Moderator Jim Lehrer spent most of his time on the sidelines, trying to corral the candidates into the loosely-defined issue “pods.”
Romney, who spent weeks in debate prep, was poised. Obama was less so, seemingly on the defensive for much of the forum as Romney went after him.
Even Team Obama acknowledged Romney’s successes.
Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said that Mitt Romney won on “preparation” and “style,” but added that Mitt Romney got “testy.” That word was on the lips of the entire top Obama team in the spin room, all of whom said Romney came off to a home audience as combative. They didn’t expect the debate to change much.
“If they think they did so will, then you show me by next week that Ohio’s tied and Iowa’s tied and Nevada’s tied,” Obama adviser David Plouffe said. “That’s what this race is about.”
Plouffe pointed to discussions of Medicare and financial regulations as moments when it was Romney who was on the defensive. Indeed, Romney faced questions about the specifics of his plans, most pointedly during a discussion of “Obamacare,” a term both the president and Romney heartily embraced.
“Gov. Romney says he’ll replace it with something, but can’t detail how it will be, in fact, replaced — and the reason he set up the system he did in Massachusetts was because there isn’t a better way of dealing with the preexisting conditions problem — it reminds me,” Obama said. “He says he will close deductions and loopholes for his tax plan — that how it will be paid for, we don’t know the details. He says that he’s going to replace Dodd-Frank, Wall Street reform, but we don’t know exactly which ones, he won’t tell us. He now says he’ll replace Obamacare — and ensure all the good things in it will be in there — and you don’t have to worry.”
Romney cast his plans, which have been criticized by both sides for being vague, as detailed. He claimed to have a plan to cover preexisting conditions, though after the debate an adviser told TPM that’s not exactly true. He said his tax plan, which has been criticized for featuring massive cuts along with a promise to increase military spending and reduce the deficit, actually doesn’t cut taxes much at all. He was also quick with the attacks on Obama.
“Mr. President, as president, you are entitled to your own plane and house, but not the facts,” Romney said.
Obama came into the debate with momentum in the polls on his side. The PollTracker Average showed him with a narrow lead before the debate began, putting the onus on Romney to turn things around. Both candidates sought to dampen expectations before the debate (sometimes to comically low levels).
Romney’s campaign was quick to say that this was the first debate of three, but was clearly happy with the result.
“If this had been a boxing match, the referee would have called it,” Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters after the debate.
It was striking that some of the biggest Obama attack lines of the past few weeks didn’t make an appearance in the debate, another sign that Romney was the aggressor. After the debate was over, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina explained to reporters that the infamous “47 percent” line from Romney didn’t make an appearance because the right time never arrived.
“It just didn’t come up in the debate,” Messina said. “It wasn’t a deliberate decision.”