Oct. 6 Daily News editorial
Our reaction to Wednesday night's presidential debate isn't exactly nuanced or multi-faceted.
Mitt Romney, still an underdog in the polls, won it.
Romney, well-prepped and increasingly confident, was as persuasive as we've seen him for quite some time. He showed the self-assurance that allowed him to survive an endless series of winter debates among as many as nine contentious Republican candidates and projected the "I have my numbers and positions down pat, do you?" attitude that's probably allowed him to dominate conversations and decision-making in who knows how many board rooms and business meetings over the years.
It was very much the same Romney persona that emerges in the surreptitiously taped fundraiser in Florida — minus the content that was never designed to reach the public.
If Romney was Romney, President Barack Obama was, well, nowhere. The empty chair that Clint Eastwood dragged on stage at the Republican convention would have, in some ways, been a tougher opponent for Romney.
Students of body language might have needed only a few minutes to declare Romney the winner. As we heard more than one analyst remark: "Romney finally acted like a man who wanted to be president. Obama? Suddenly, we're not so sure."
While presidential campaigns as a whole involve issues much larger than the tactics and theatrics that tend to determine the perceived "winner" of a debate, we've always thought the debates significant for the large number of voters who don't follow the campaigns day by day. If the candidates don't really do much other than re-air familiar themes and re-cover familiar ground, they're doing it in front of an audience that isn't always aware that the ground is familiar.
Some zest for this process is expected. Viewers got it from Romney, but not from Obama, who often appeared as if he wished he were somewhere else. Ten minutes into the debate, the President was in violation of many of the accepted dos and don'ts of debating:
• Do make eye contact.
• Don't fumble, mumble or be constantly checking your notes. Avoid overly long and meandering answers in favor of direct responses.
• Don't let a desire to appear "presidential" trap you into a rope-a-dope strategy where your opponent does all the hitting and you don't hit back.
• If things start to deteriorate, don't whine and blame the moderator.
It was a bad night for a campaigner with an unusual mix of strengths and weaknesses. Obama sailed through the 2008 debates against Sen. John McCain, whose campaign had already cratered by October, but Wednesday's debate tended to pigeonhole the President, yet again, as someone who can deliver a polished, effective speech but can lose his way in a format that involves give and take and doesn't allow him full control of all circumstances.
Obama let some very challenge-able Romney campaign rhetoric go unchallenged and allowed himself to be patronized by Romney as naive in the ways of commerce and finance. If there were some notes on his lectern that may have helped, it's safe to say Obama never found them.
With two debates remaining, Obama has some recovery time. The candidate who needs to shake the Etch-a-Sketch and start over, however, is the President.