New York, Thursday 4 October 2012
There were no devastating put-downs or gasp-inducing zingers. But the first US presidential debate did deliver a surprise. Mitt Romney, until now derided as robotic, plutocratic and out of touch, was assured, presidential and in control – in a word, Presidential.
Meanwhile the usually cool and unflappable Barack Obama appeared uncharacteristically nervous, swallowing hard, failing to take the make eye contact with his opponent and allowing Romney to interrupt and correct him at key moments.
An energised Romney went on the attack, forcing the President to defend his record on the economy, the deficit and health care, issues which will decide this election.
Obama countered that his Republican opponent’s economic policies would make the richest Americans richer while harming the poor and the middle class. It is a line which Democratic strategists know strikes a chord with ordinary Americans but Obama’s line of attack failed to gather momentum.
Across America, this morning’s newspapers echo what many of the tens of millions of Americans watching the televised debate, held at the University of Denver, will have instinctively felt. The Republican candidate won this first debate against the President, though not by a mile.
Today’s Washington Post refers to Romney as “rejuvenated” and says he took “the debate to the President” while the New York Times describes how Obama “winced as if his opponent were causing him indigestion, but he didn’t return fire”.
At watch parties, held in homes, community centres and bars across America, Democrats had devised a drinking game in which spectators had to take a sip of alcohol every time Obama hammered Romney over his perceived wealth and his “47 percent” remark about Democrat voters being moochers. It made for a sober evening. The line never came and the drinks sat untouched.
The debate was a dignified slug out between the two men which, in the words of the New York Times, was “without fireworks”.
Fireworks or not, the Romney campaign has have every reason to feel happy. “We have a new race, ladies and gentlemen,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio declared the moment the debate closed.
The win gives Romney’s campaign a much-needed boost but whether it will have a decisive effect on the polls remains to be seen. The media loves them, and millions of Americans tune in, but history suggests that the debates are rarely game changers.
Read my coverage of the 2012 US presidential election in Scotland on Sunday http://www.scotsman.com/scotland-on-sunday