Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
Debate viewers learn the candidates better


< Previous Page


Washington • Both men relish the wonky talk in their own way. Mitt Romney, like an executive making a forceful sales pitch, shows an easy confidence that suits a presidential contender. Barack Obama sounds like a long-winded professor a tad annoyed at having to go over this stuff one more time for the students in the back.

For viewers of this year’s first presidential debate one takeaway was clear — if you want detailed discussion of the issues, not just zingers, expect to sit through 90 minutes of some pretty dry stuff.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

"The impression you leave with is, wow, this whole economy thing is complicated, and these are two people who are knowledgeable about the details," said Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M associate professor who studies political discourse. "That can only serve Romney well, because he looks as knowledgeable and presidential as Obama does."

Other things learned from the first of three Romney-Obama matchups: When the pressure is on, Romney rises to the occasion. He knows how to accuse his opponent of deception while still sounding civil. With a thin lead in the polls, Obama prefers to play it safe and pull his punches. Romney sounds smooth and in command. Obama’s style is sometimes halting, as if he’s pausing to reflect mid-sentence.

Viewers Wednesday night also learned that Romney can deploy a joke without sounding awkward. And he can maintain a pleasant half-smile for a heroic amount of time. Obama’s grin is toothy and sincere but rarely comes out onstage.

Neither man is gregarious or particularly warm; no Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton here. They share a managerial style of leadership and the assurance and self-regard of Harvard men. Each can seem prickly when challenged. But Romney controlled it better.

"I think Romney did it just right. He was aggressive without being perceived as annoying or disrespectful," said Robert Denton Jr., head of the Communications Department at Virginia Tech.

With Obama, Denton said, "There was a little bit of a tone there, a little bit of an edge. He sounded a little frustrated at times in terms of the forcefulness of the explanation."

The rivals’ next two outings will be different, no doubt.

Reacting to the harsh reviews, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod was already saying on Thursday that his team would "take a hard look at this" and "make adjustments" in the president’s debate strategy.


story continues below
story continues below

The format of the town hall-style debate on Oct. 16 may favor Obama, who appears relaxed at such events as president and is rated more likable and empathetic than Romney in opinion polls.

Likewise, the foreign policy and national security debate on Oct. 22 would seem to play into Obama’s area of expertise as president. But it could also dovetail nicely with Romney’s efforts to assail Obama’s handling of the Mideast and the war in Afghanistan.

In Wednesday’s domestic policy debate, Romney demonstrated he can boil down his points in simple, pragmatic language. He delighted in labeling Obama’s vision "trickle-down government." He talked in numerical lists, with constant references to "my No. 1 principle," part two of the plan, a third area of disagreement, seeming just on the verge of turning to a PowerPoint screen.

Obama, in contrast, can seem momentarily lost as lapses into his trademark pauses in the midst of long answers, such as his explanation of what he sees as flaws in Romney’s proposal for helping people with pre-existing conditions keep insurance coverage.

"He’s not a Bill Clinton. Clinton was the explainer in chief at the Democratic convention, taking complex issues and explaining them so people understand," said Rita Kirk, a Southern Methodist University professor who studies campaign communications. "That doesn’t seem to be Obama’s particular gift. More to the point, it seemed to be Romney’s gift last night."

While Romney pounded away at Obama over the nation’s slow economic recovery and high unemployment, Obama didn’t raise many of the criticisms he deploys against his rival in campaign speeches and advertising. No mention of Romney’s remarks about "47 percent of Americans" who depend on government aid and won’t take responsibility for their lives. Nor did Obama bring up women’s health issues or immigration reform, or talk about Romney’s wealth and use of offshore investments.

"I’m dumbfounded," said Denton, who has coached mayoral and gubernatorial candidates in debate skills. "I don’t understand it from a political perspective, a debate perspective or a strategic perspective, unless it is just do no harm. Let’s ride it out and play it safe."

Viewers saw that Romney was willing to take bigger risks. He may have gone too far at least once, declaring he wanted to end federal subsidies for PBS, including even Sesame Street’s Big Bird.

"We learned that he wasn’t concerned about Big Bird," said Mercieca. "That might be the one thing we remember about this debate."



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.