One can often tell the outcome of a debate before it’s over by the tone taken by campaign surrogates and media personalities in advance of the closing statements. Inside the Hofstra University presidential debates media center, the message coming from spin alley was clear and consistent: liberals claimed Obama won; conservatives claimed it was a tie, and that’s all the Obama campaign needed to hear tonight to turn the narrative around.
After his lackluster performance in Denver two weeks ago, the pressure was on President Obama to step up his game and come across as more engaged and less distant. From the very beginning, it was clear that Obama listened.
Right from the get go, Obama took shots at Romney on issues ranging from higher education, to the auto bailout, and women's issues in direct, sound-byte friendly fashion. Obama also took the opportunity to lay out his administration’s successes during his first term, delivering a powerful oratory performance that was noticeably lacking prior to tonight's debate. The president's performance wasn't perfect but it was miles beyond Obama’s Denver debacle and, coupled with a decidedly average showing from Romney, sufficient to place him as the clear winner in tonight’s debate. Obama scored big on women's issues, foreign policy, and taxes as Romney struggled to answer questions on key issues, resulting in a gift-wrapped debate for Obama.
Former Governor Romney’s performance suffered from high expectations more than anything else tonight. Romney's first act was a tough one to follow, especially with a re-energized and hungry President Obama chomping at the bit. While he delivered a solid performance throughout most of the debate, Romney botched slam-dunk opportunities on questions about Libya, taxes, and women’s issues.
In terms of sound bytes, Romney’s personal story about asking his staff to bring him “whole binders full of women” to hire while he was governor is going to haunt him in the closing weeks of the campaign. The situation arose when Romney was asked what he would do about unequal pay. Instead of answering the question, Romney discussed his experience as governor and how he requested that his cabinet hire more women. He was silent on the role of women in his decades of private sector experience as well as the central issue of the question: equal pay.
On Libya, Romney was thrown a perfect pitch to knock out of the park concerning embassy security and rather than take a swing, he watched the question go right past him. Romney mumbled an incoherent answer that talked around the issue of embassy security that conservative talking heads had been slamming home for the past week, opening the window for Obama to side-step tough questions by humanizing the victims of the attacks and assuming responsibility in a safe and unchallenged manner.
The Libya fumble was hammered home again when Romney was called on misstating the facts by moderator Candy Crowley.
Finally, during their closing statements, Romney focused on his faith and his efforts within his community rang hollow in a debate focused primarily on foreign policy and the economy. Obama took advantage, using the last two minutes of the debate to slam Romney on his 47% comment, ensuring that Romney would not have an opportunity to respond.
The outmaneuvering of the Romney campaign by the Obama campaign tonight will go a long way toward changing the tone of the media coverage heading towards election night. Candidate Obama re-emerged just in time to derail the Romney narrative and go after former Governor Romney on all the big ticket issues while effectively deflecting the right’s most effective attacks. Romney delivered a solid performance but he needed to deliver a fantastic performance to keep the momentum going in his favor. He'll have a tough time doing so in the coming days after tonight's showing and that fact may very well decide the election.
Read complete updates at Kogan's live debate blog from Hofstra University.