Washington • Mitt Romney tried to shake off the stiffness and President Barack Obama attempted to drop the professorial tone as the two met Wednesday for the first of three presidential debates.
Heading into the final weeks of the campaign, Romney and Obama both had key tasks: For Romney, upping his likability and for Obama, keeping his.
How did they measure up? Even liberal commentators swooped in to say Romney killed on stage while Obama appeared to steer clear of some of the more damaging hits he could have delivered on his rival.
Obama didn’t “bring his ‘A’ game,” Democratic strategist James Carville pronounced on CNN seconds after the match ended. Instant polls matched the sentiment.
Like me, like me • Facing an electorate that sees him as aloof, Romney sprinkled his comments on Wednesday with people he’s met on the campaign trail, an all-out effort to boost his likability factor. And he headed straight to the middle class, a key demographic to appeal to.
“The people who are having the hard time right now are middle-income Americans,” Romney said, then echoing a line Vice President Joe Biden used this week. “Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They’re just being crushed.”
Romney even grabbed the first laugh of the debate, joking about how Obama was spending his 20th wedding anniversary on stage.
“I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here — here with me,” Romney said.
Voter dials on CNN showed a good reaction every time Romney headed that direction in his comments, and Obama tried, too, to harness his connection to voters.
Under his leadership, Obama said, a woman in North Carolina got job training and autoworkers in Detroit and Toledo, Ohio, still have jobs. Voters want to continue that and keep moving forward, the president said.
“Are we going to double-down on the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess? Or do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best?”
Tone it down • Obama didn’t bully his way through the debate, but he did end up reverting to a classroom-lecturing-style several times in the debate, and he landed four more minutes than his rival.
“Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street?” Obama asked.
Romney, on the other hand, wasn’t timid, taking on moderator Jim Lehrer and arguing his way to respond when the host tried to move on.
“Jim, the president began this segment, so I think I get the last word,” Romney said, rolling over the time limits.
Zing! • Romney called out Obama several times for what the Republican candidate said were untruths from his opponent.
“I’ve got five boys,” Romney said. “I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it.”
Romney also landed a punch, calling Obama’s plan for America “trickle-down government,” and he noted that the president is entitled to his own airplane and his own house, “not to your own facts.”
Obama hammered Romney’s tax reform plan and tried to pull in the flip-flop label without using that phrase.
“Well, for 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan,” Obama said. “And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is, ‘Never mind.’”
Short sound bites weren’t in the president’s quiver on Wednesday — he didn’t even attempt to bring up Romney’s controversial comment that he didn’t worry about 47 percent of Americans — but Obama did call out his rival for the vagueness of his plans.
“At some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret because they’re too good?” Obama asked.
Memories • While there were no unforgettable oops moments and few stumbles, the memorable part of the first debate might just be how little a role the moderator played. The agreed-upon time limits were tossed out soon after the debate started as both candidates talked their way past Lehrer’s attempts to refocus the questions.
“Excuse me. Excuse me,” Lehrer said, trying to interrupt Romney. “Just so everybody understands, we’re way over our first 15 minutes.”
“It’s fun, isn’t it,” Romney responded.