Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney points to President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
It was not Romney versus Obama in the first presidential debate of 2012.
It was Romney versus Romney. And one of them prevailed.
A restrained Barack Obama, who went into the debate with a solid lead in the polls, and an even more solid lead in the battleground states, often seemed to be more of a spectator than a participant.
Obama’s reluctance handed Romney an opening that the Republican took.
Indeed, Romney took it to every side of every issue.
Mitt Romney was for government, but not for “trickle-down government.”
Mitt Romney was for cracking down on Wall Street, except when he was against the Dodd-Frank banking reforms.
Mitt Romney was for Romneycare, and against Obamacare.
Mitt Romney was for the 47 percent, and against them.
The liberal, moderate and conservative Republican who has been on all sides of all issues brought his commitment-free brand of politics to the national stage in the first of three presidential debates. Even by Romney standards, it was a dizzying performance.
Poor Jim Lehrer could not keep up. The moderator lost control of the debate at the start, when he let Romney demand more time to answer President Obama’s opening statement than Obama had used to deliver it, and he never got it back. “Excuse me, excuse me,” Lehrer said early on. Eventually, as Romney began dictated when and how Romney would answer questions, Lehrer simply said: “All right. All right.”
ROMNEY: Jim, the president began this segment, so I think I get the last word.
LEHRER: Well, you’re going to get the first word in the next segment.
ROMNEY: All right. Well, but he gets the first word of that segment. I get the last word I hope. Let me just make this comment…
And so he did.
Debates have come apart at the seams before.
That’s usually when the candidate with greater experience and stature steers things back to the high ground.
But it did not happen Wednesday night.
A dialed-down, consistently cautious Obama watched Romney go through ideological changes faster than Madonna does costumes on a concert night. Yet, Obama rarely if ever called his challenger out—even when the Republican presidential nominee was prattling on about the head-spinning mash-up of FDR and Reagan: “trickle-down government.”
On a night when Obama could have closed the deal, 46 percent of uncommitted voters told NBC pollsters that Romney won the debate. CNN foiund a wider margin, with 67 percent pegging Romney as the winner.