2012 Presidential Debates: Romney 1, Obama 0

How the challenger won the first debate.

There are lots of ways I can imagine spending my 20th wedding anniversary; getting my ass handed to me by my nemesis in front of 50 million people is definitely not one of them.

Ok, I’m being harsh. The first of three scheduled on-screen match-ups between President Obama and his challenger in the November election, Mitt Romney, may not have amounted to an all out ass-whooping. But watching a president who holds nearly every advantage on policy get publicly bested by a lesser politician who made it where he is by being the least-worst choice from a rogues gallery of GOP candidates (one quirkier than the next) tells me that either Obama is too tired to care or too cocky to think he has to.

It’s also a reminder that debates are about “image over ideas,” to quote James Fallows. And on that gauge Romney scored a big win. The President was knocked off his square early in the night and never fully regained his composure. Instead he came off as unprepared, detached and at times disinterested. It hardly matters that his opponent was repeating the same unsubstantiated claims and empty rhetoric he has been throughout the campaign, because in the end it was not about what Romney said, but how he said it.

Part of the President’s problem can simply be chalked up to style. Obama’s slow and deliberate delivery is ill-suited to timed debating, where speed, precision and poise matter much more than substance. The President simply thinks too much before he speaks, a trait that’s easily misinterpreted as a lack of confidence in what he’s saying—particularly when juxtaposed with Romney’s rapid-fire fluidity. I didn’t bother to count, but I’d wager that Romney got in two words to the President’s every one; and he did so without missing a beat, or, as one commentator described it, with “near-flawless tactical execution.”

So how exactly did Romney pull it off?

Well, for starters he’s gotten a lot more practice. While the President was running the country, the former Massachusetts governor spent most of the past 12 months waging a long, drawn-out primary fight, dodging jibes from opponents before audiences from Arizona to South Carolina. Between June 2011 and February 2012, Romney participated in 19 on-stage debates, an average of more than one a month.

Credit must also go to his advisers, who have spent weeks filling their boss’s head with stats, anecdotes and legislative minutiae (which he employed without skipping a beat) while drilling him with mock debates. Romney spent more than a week last month in intense preparation with his sparring partner Sen. Rob Portman, of Ohio, who reportedly does a spot-on Obama.

But mostly Romney won because he gained early momentum. From his opening statement he put the President on the defensive and avoided getting backed into a corner himself.  It wasn’t hard. President Obama limited his attacks to open-hand slaps instead of the clenched-fist jabs some of Romney’s more spectacular misrepresentations deserved. And this is where the President really dropped the ball: Romney’s advisers have repeatedly pointed to the candidate’s propensity for defensiveness as his Achilles’ heal (they blame the infamous $10,000 bet remark, for instance, on his getting flustered under pressure from Gov. Rick Perry).

So why didn’t Obama push harder on his opponent’s willingness to let the auto industry sink? Why didn’t he force Romney’s hand on the futility of his tax plan? My guess is that the President and his own advisers underestimated their opponent and simply didn’t take the time to prepare as much as they should have. Bolstered by the political fallout from Romney’s cringe-worthy “47 percent” remark, the Obama camp convinced themselves that their opponent was perfectly capable of self-destructing on his own. Last night that proved to be a mistake.

Going into the debate, Romney’s campaign managers said their main goal was to make the candidate seem human and warm. I’m not sure that worked; I saw on stage the same condescending, smirking, cardboard cut-out I’ve always seen when I look at Mitt Romney. But they scored an unexpected victory all the same. Is it a game changer? Not likely. Presidential challengers almost always win the first debate. It’s up to the President to make sure it stops at one. Last night’s victory may have breathed new life into Romney’s sluggish and uninspiring campaign, but this election is still Obama’s to lose.