Republicans could be heard audibly breathing a collective sigh of relief all around the nation Wednesday as GOP presidential standard-bearer Mitt Romney seized the initiative in the first presidential debate, repeatedly putting the president on the defensive over the economy, his energy policies, and financial regulatory reform.
“You raise taxes and you kill jobs,” Romney said directly to the president.
Romney also slammed the Obama administration for making multi-billion dollar investments in green-energy programs, including some grants to companies such as Solyndra that have filed for bankruptcy.
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“I had a friend who said you don’t just pick the winners and the losers, you pick the losers,” Romney quipped.
When the former Massachusetts governor said the president should have listened to his own Simpson-Bowles commissions’ recommendation for reducing the budget deficit, President Obama said that he was now preparing a budget, with his own modification, that would accomplish precisely that.
“But you’ve been president four years…” Romney appeared to remind him as Obama nodded. “We still show trillion dollar deficits every year.”
As the debate moved on the president appeared to grow more comfortable. But conservative pundits and bloggers were elated that Romney got off to a fast, poised start.
“Romney is forceful, clear and polite,” former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell told Newsmax. “He's controlling the direction of the debate.” Author and Fox News commentator Dick Morris commented on his web site: “Obama doesn’t open his eyes. Looks like he’s unsure and groping. … Finally Obama talks about real people. Romney’s been doing it all night. Obama stumbling.”
InsiderAdvantage pollster Matt Towery told Newsmax: “Romney clearly took control of this debate. He was the aggressor in this contest...my guess is that if you added up the time taken, Romney simply took more Obama delivery was halted and he appeared not at the top of his game.”
Indeed, some conservative reaction sounded borderline jubilant. “When does Mitt take out a bag with Obama’s lunch written on it, and start eating out of it?” conservative author and pundit Jonah Goldberg stated on the National Review Online’s live blog on the debate.
At times both candidates ran afoul of the scores of fact-checkers perusing every assertion. President Obama claimed he put forward a $4 trillion plan to reduce the deficit. “It’s on a website,” he said. “You can look at all the numbers.”
ABC did so, and rated the claim “mostly fiction.” Obama’s plan includes the $1 trillion Congress has already agreed to, and $1 trillion from winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are already coming to a close.
ABC also rated as mostly fiction the president’s repeated assertion that Romney’s tax plan would add $5 trillion to the deficit.
Romney on the other hand was taken to task for claiming health care costs have risen by $2,500 per family in the wake of the president’s healthcare reforms. Factcheck.org labeled that assertion as false because only a small portion of the rise in costs is attributable to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
More important than the policy details, however, is likely to be the impression left by a well-prepared Republican opponent with a happy-warrior glint articulating his policy positions while the president on a split screen appeared to look downward unhappily at what he was hearing.
Obama rallied as the debate went on. One strong point for Obama was when he suggested Romney is being intentionally vague about his specific proposals to solve the nation’s problems.
“At some point I think the American people have to ask is the reason Gov. Romney is keeping all these solutions to these problems secret because they are too good?” Obama pointed asked.
Romney responded that his approach is intended to lay down principles, while leaving room for other parties to participate in finding a solution in a bipartisan way.
“My experience as governor [is] if I come in and lay down a piece of paper and say, ‘It’s my way or the highway, I don’t get a lot done,’” he said.
Leading up to the debate, conservative pundits told Newsmax that low expectations and improved poll numbers were combining to give Romney a “huge opportunity” to stun the Obama campaign with a strong debate performance, in part by connecting with swing voters who have never had an opportunity to hear the GOP standard-bearer defend himself against Democratic attacks, conservative pundits say.
The media have been quick to portray Romney’s campaign as slipping further and further behind in recent weeks. But that narrative stands in contrast to several recent polls that now show the election essentially deadlocked before Romney takes the debate stage against the incumbent president -- a situation that usually favors the challenger.
“I see a huge opportunity for Mitt Romney,” InsiderAdvantage pollster Matt Towery told Newsmax.
Newsmax and InsiderAdvantage are teaming up to conduct a nationwide “flash poll” immediately following the debate in Denver. The poll results are expected within 45 minutes after Romney and Obama make their final pitches to the American public in the first — and what appears to be shaping up as the most critical — of the three planned presidential debates leading up the Nov. 6 election.
Towery told Newsmax Romney must seize the initiative and keep Obama on the defensive. He advises Romney to exploit Vice President Joe Biden’s latest gaffe, an admission that middle-class voters have been “buried” by a bad economy over the past four years that Obama has been in office.
“I don’t think Barack Obama can be on the defensive for more than about 15 minutes without becoming very frustrated, and very angry,” says Towery. “If you can ever get a candidate frustrated or angry, that incumbent can start to crumble.”
Of course, that would run counter to Obama’s unflappable, cool temperament. But despite his success in 2008 against then-opponent Hillary Clinton, Obama actually is less experienced than Romney on the debate stage. Obama has had 22 primary or presidential debates, compared to 35 for Romney, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“I think the likeliest outcome of this debate is that things will tighten a little bit,” political analyst Kyle D. Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics told Newsmax. “I think Romney still has folks out there to get under his tent. But the question is, can he eat into Obama’s 49 percent? If we start to see Obama’s support go down, then we’ve really got something.”
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Polls indicate Obama continues to enjoy significant advantages in several swing states. But Towery sees a golden opportunity for Romney to perform some political jiu-jitsu Wednesday, in part because the media in his view has seriously underestimated the former Massachusetts governor.
“You can bet in the back of their minds they expect Obama to mop the floor with Mitt Romney, said Towery, commenting on most pundits’ expectations. “So if Romney comes in and has a strong performance tonight, it will not only shock the chattering class, but will surprise a lot of voters who really have never heard Mitt Romney speak.”
By the end of the debate, it was looking well for Romney.
Former George W. Bush strategist Mark McKinnon told Newsmax Romney’s performance was “very solid.”
“Obama looks a little rattled,” he said.
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