Mitt Romney failed to do a whole lot of things I would have done tonight, and missed the few chances I saw to really swing for the fences. That said, he was consistently on target, likeable, knowledgeable, uber-competent, and believable. Through a slow but ever-steady accumulation of well-aimed small points, Romney pressed a consistent message that job creation is "job one" and that he has a good grasp on what is needed to help Americans create job for ourselves. His points were sharper; Barack Obama droned a little and een stammered a little.
With so much attention focused on ObamaCare, Romney really benefitted, both because ObamaCare already is unpopular and because Romney effectively drove home his criticisms of just those aspects of ObamaCare that are both the stupidest and the least popular.
(ONE BIG EXCEPTION: If Romney doesn't start specifically criticizing the medical device tax, we should all start tearing our hair out. It blows my mind that the Romney campaign has not used it both on the straightforward demerits economically AND ALSO, subtly, to undermine the idea of Obama as the more compassionate person. How can somebody be compassionate if he is imposing a very heavy tax on the sale of pacemakers, insulin pumps, asthma inhalers, prosthetic limbs, and all sorts of other life-saving and life-improving advances in medical technology? Yet that's what Obama has done. This is a huge untapped issue! Even better, former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh -- a second generation Demo senator at that -- just a week ago ran a column in the Wall Street Journal blasting the device tax that is in ObamaCare, which gives Romney all sorts of cover to criticize it full-bore.)
Also on health care, Obama did Romney a huge favor, unintentionally, by making a Romney weakness a strength. How? Because he repeatedly said that Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts is excellent. Now, I don't think it is excellent. But the effect was to make Rommey sound, yes, effective -- without successfully (from Obama's viewpoint) making the point Obama really wanted to make, which was that Romney's criticisms of ObamaCare should be seen as hollow because RomneyCare and ObamaCare are supposedly so similar. Somehow, Obama didn't make that entirely clear -- which left the repeated compliments, sounding like acknowledgements of generally accepted judgments, hanging in the air as testaments to Romney's competence and decency. This was especially true because Romney quite effectively made a case for himself as a bipartisan leader who passed a health care plan through a legislature dominated by the other party, with only two dissenters.
Now, on the downside, Romney really should be more specific on HOW he will address health care and how he will improve energy policy. His dodge about "laying out principles" but negotiating specifics just isn't working -- and there is no reason to dodge in the first place. I could summarize a conservative health-care approach in a single minute, and I could summarize a strong energy policy in probably 45 seconds, with some real specifics but without getting lost in wonky policy weeds. I've done it several times on the radio; it's not that hard, and it should be a big advantage for Romney.
As for Obama, he sounded like he did in his Democratic convention acceptance speech: banal, with not a single new thing to offer. We've heard all his nostrums before. He offered nothing new that was forward-looking. And several times he looked down while Romney was making good points, almost as if Obama were, well, in despair. He certainly wasn't commanding.
In sum, then, Romney "won" this debate. He didn't completely dominate; he created not a single truly defining moment, and he didn't win by enough to cause a huge momentum shift in this campaign. But I do think he laid the groundwork for a slow, steady hike toward victory -- if he can keep it up and run a more solid campaign, in terms of message, than he has run so far. The momentum did shift tonight, in Romney's favor -- and even if the shift wasn't as large or near-decisive as conservatives might have hoped, it was still significant.
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