Diary

Debate 1: Romney won

4 October 2012

Romney scored against Obama last night. He was an agile fighter, Obama seemed tired.  The LA times summarizes well was transpired.

Mitt Romney makes smooth shift to center in debate with Obama

In his first debate with the president, the Republican works on his empathy problem and appears to gain momentum.

WASHINGTON — The small group of voters who remain undecided or at least open to persuasion in the presidential campaign consistently tell pollsters that they want to hear specifics and don’t like partisan attacks. President Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, obliged them.

Their debate often wandered far into the byways of Washington policy, including financial regulation, “qualified mortgages” and competing healthcare plans. Obama left aside much of the central thrust of his campaign — the fierce attacks on Romney’s business record, personal taxes and ideology.

 

All that played to Romney’s advantage, as the challenger rebutted some of Obama’s most persistent campaign attacks. He insisted repeatedly, for example, that he had not proposed a “$5-trillion tax cut”; said that he would continue to guarantee health coverage for people with preexisting medical conditions, even while repealing Obama’s healthcare law; and advocated regulation of Wall Street banks.

“Regulation is essential,” he said, in language that voters might have expected to hear from the president. “You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation.”

Each of those comments represented a shift to the center for a candidate who had veered to the right to fend off challengers in his party’s primaries.

In some cases, Romney’s statements were open to challenge. His health plan, as described by campaign aides, protects only people with preexisting conditions who have continuously had health insurance — a right already protected by federal law in most cases. But Obama, whose own aides admit he can often be long-winded, appeared to struggle to make those distinctions clear.

The president succeeded in making some clear points, saying, for example, that under his health plan, “insurance companies can’t jerk you around.” More often, however, his answers seemed unfocused.

Romney, by contrast, was able to use the debate to begin to address the two biggest hurdles that he has faced, according to polls: Many voters say he lacks an understanding of their problems, and a significant number feel he has not offered enough specifics on his campaign plans.

Romney sought to address the issue of empathy with some of his first words, talking about “meeting people across the country” who have told him of their problems.

“I was in Dayton, Ohio, and a woman grabbed my arm, and she said, ‘I’ve been out of work since May. Can you help me?’ Ann yesterday was at a rally in Denver, and a woman came up to her with a baby in her arms and said, ‘Ann, my husband has had four jobs in three years, part-time jobs. He’s lost his most recent job, and we’ve now just lost our home. Can you help us?’”

“The answer is yes,” he said, “we can help, but it’s going to take a different path.”

The comments followed the same approach as an ad Romney’s campaign has recently aired in which he speaks directly to voters, saying that “too many Americans are struggling” and that while he and Obama both care about the poor, the difference is that his own policies “will make things better.”

But while Romney appeared to have the better outing, he also faced the harder task.

Obama has held a small but stubborn lead in the race for weeks, both nationally, according to every major public poll, and in some key battleground states, particularly Ohio and Wisconsin.

Romney trailed Obama by a couple of points in mid-August, before the two parties’ conventions. In the aftermath of the conventions, that deficit widened to 5 or 6 points. The most recent polling suggests that Obama’s edge may have started to fade.

With relatively few voters open to changing their minds about the candidates, it’s not clear whether a better debate performance will allow Romney to begin to make up that ground.

Obama was able to use the debate to make some points of importance to groups that have helped fuel his rise, particularly Latinos and blue-collar women.

Since mid-August, Obama has gone from about 60% support among Latinos to 66% in Gallup’s polling. More significantly, the share of Latinos who say they are “certain” to vote has risen from 61% to 71%, narrowing the gap with other racial and ethnic groups.

A large Latino turnout in his favor remains key for Obama’s hopes of winning several battleground states, particularly Nevada, Florida and Colorado. If his lead holds in Ohio and Wisconsin, carrying any one of those states would be enough for victory.

Wednesday’s debate did not touch on the issue of immigration, which has been a major source of strength for Obama with Latino voters. But the discussion did focus extensively on healthcare, which has also been an important subject for Latino voters, particularly women, as well as to older voters, who have been a major focus of both campaigns.

Predictably, both candidates brought up the $716 billion in Medicare cost cuts that Obama made as part of his healthcare law. Perhaps surprisingly, it was Obama who raised the issue first, seeking to frame it to his advantage. Under the law, the government was “able to save” that amount of money “by no longer overpaying insurance companies, by making sure that we weren’t overpaying providers,” Obama said.

By contrast, he said, Romney and his running mate, Paul D. Ryan, would convert Medicare from an open-ended entitlement to a voucher system for people who are now 55 or younger.

That now-familiar subject will remain front and center as Romney heads off on a campaign swing to Florida on Thursday. With a successful debate performance behind him, he will carry new momentum with him.

Friedman sums it up a few days later

Can I Phone a Friend?  By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN NYTimes.
LAST week’s debate was important not only because Mitt Romney “won” and thereby energized his moribund campaign. It was important because Romney won in a way that exposed and deepened President Obama’s two greatest vulnerabilities in this election, while overcoming, at least for one night, Romney’s greatest weakness.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. For weeks, Romney had performed so badly and had fallen so far behind in swing states that if this campaign were a Ryder Cup singles match, you’d have said the president felt he had the match in the bag with just a few holes left to play. So he did the worst thing you can do in match play golf: he started playing not to lose. He continued with an uninspired, vague and cautious campaign and just waited for Romney to keep hitting balls out of bounds. Romney, his back to the wall, had no choice but to start aggressively playing to win.

He did so by repositioning himself as a center-right Republican moderate. Yes, this required him to mischaracterize and disguise key aspects of his platform on taxes and health care. But because Obama did not pounce on that abrupt Romney shift to the center, Romney’s arguments were allowed to be presented without any counter and, as I said, scored a direct hit on Obama’s two greatest vulnerabilities.

The first, and the most dangerous threat to Obama’s re-election, is a critical mass of voters saying this: “Barack Obama, nice man, good father, great that we finally elected an African-American. He tried hard. But you know what? I just want to try something new, even if I don’t know it will work.”

That sentiment is deadly for Obama. As long as Romney didn’t seem like a credible alternative, Obama kept it at bay, even though the economy has stagnated. But Romney reawakened that mood by the confident and crisp way he talked about the mechanics of how jobs are created — through start-ups, small businesses and entrepreneurship — and the catalytic power of markets. His presentation crackled with a freshness and a sense of possibility that was completely missing in Obama’s monotone discussion of health care, deficits and government programs. And where Obama had a chance to talk about how his own green jobs initiative has actually spurred all kinds of innovations and start-ups, he whiffed. (As some have noted, it is too bad the debate rules didn’t allow him to phone a friend.)

I confess, spending time with inventors, social entrepreneurs and people who start companies really floats my boat — and I am not alone. If there has been one consistent weakness to this president’s public messaging, it is that it is often lacking in any excitement about innovation and entrepreneurship — the real drivers of our economy. In recent years, all net new jobs in America have come from start-ups.

Obama knows this, and, in his convention speech, at least he actually spoke to it eloquently, saying: “We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system.”

Yes! Yes! Yes! Mr. President. And. in the next debate, look into the camera and tell us what you are going to do in a second term to multiply the number of those risk-takers by 10. Give those people who are saying, “Nice guy, but I just want to try something new,” a real reason to be excited that you not only want to deliver national health insurance but also an innovation economy that will ensure we can afford it.

Your closing statement was awful: If you re-elect me, I will “fight every single day on behalf of the American people and the middle class.” That’s a given! What great inspiring journey are you going to take the whole country on to invent the future and spark more good jobs?

The other Obama weakness exploited by Romney was the country’s political paralysis. Obama is right — most of that gridlock was orchestrated by the Republicans to make him fail. But the fact is, a lot of Americans today look at our politicians and feel as though we’re the children of permanently divorcing parents — and they are sick of it. There is a longing to see our politicians working together again. So when Romney spoke about how he met with Democrats once a week as Massachusetts governor to get stuff done, that surely touched a hopeful chord with some voters. Obama needs to stress that he, from his side, aspires to restore bipartisanship and has a plan to overcome paralysis and pull the country together in a second term.

The weakness Romney overcame was the notion that he didn’t care about or know how to talk to 47 percent of the country. This was the first time Romney addressed the whole country directly, rather than a purely Republican audience. He didn’t have to worry about the nut balls he was running against in the G.O.P. primary and was not forced to cater just to the Tea Party base. So he finally took out the Etch A Sketch and moved to the center.

Is this how he would really govern? I wouldn’t trust it — not with all his voodoo math — but it was a lot more effective messaging than that by the Romney of old. This new Romney sounded like a man applying to be the C.E.O. of a country that needs a turnaround. Obama sounded like a man who forgot — or resented — that he needed to reapply for his job at all.

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Peter

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