Denver—A political reporter was likely to be disappointed upon entering the University of Denver’s “DebateFest.” The event, held on the campus quad Wednesday afternoon before Wednesday night’s debate, was advertised as a largely political affair. Instead, one found a sort of yuppie spring fling: a concert stage in one grassy area and an impressive array of high-concept food trucks in another. Tucked off to one side were the largely ignored tables for political activists. Even many of the groups there were unrelated to the campaign. Personhood USA, a national anti–abortion rights group headquartered in Denver, was trying to convince passersby that a fetus was the “thirteenth victim” of the recent Aurora, Colorado, shootings, while progressive anti-poverty groups raised awareness about their general goals. The main electoral activity was voter registration: Voto Latino, NARAL, the University of Denver College Democrats and others offered the opportunity to join the voter rolls. Outside, Kevin Mason, the president of Personhood USA, told me that he is not even voting for Romney. “He’s a lame duck,” says Mason. “He says he’s pro-life but he doesn’t act like it.”
The campaigns focused their energies on rallying small groups of loud supporters, waving signs and chanting unpersuasive slogans like “four more years,” outside the campus perimeter.
Colorado is a crucial swing state, and both campaigns are trying to take full advantage of being here for the debate. Romney held a rally on Monday, followed by one with Ann Romney on Tuesday and Marco Rubio on Wednesday morning. Turnout for Rubio was unimpressive: about 250 people. While the speakers were Latino, and the signs behind the stage said, “Juntos Con Romney,” Latinos appeared to make up a small minority of the audience.
The debate itself provided an opportunity for the candidates to reinforce the attacks on their opponents that they have been repeating over the last few days. After Vice President Joe Biden admitted on Tuesday that “the middle class that has been buried the last four years,” Republicans sought to make it into a major theme of their campaign. Rubio riffed on it at length Wednesday morning. Sure enough, just a few minutes into the debate, Romney said the middle class has been buried. Later, he changed that to “crushed,” and returned to the word several times. (Small business “has been crushed” by the Obama administration, and so on.) Romney also mentioned Solyndra, a Republican obsession on the order of Whitewater, multiple times.
Both campaigns also dispatched teams of surrogates to hold press conferences on Tuesday and spin the media immediately after the debate. At a Democratic press conference in Denver on Tuesday, Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs referenced Romney’s insult towards the 47 percent of Americans who have no income tax liability. “Forty-seven,” Gibbs noted, “is also where Massachusetts ranked in job growth out of the fifty states when he was governor.”
Obama failed to explicitly bring up Romney’s comment, but in his discussion of Social Security and Medicare he made what may have been an oblique reference to it. Romney infamously complained that the 47 percent are Obama voters, “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”
Throughout the debate Obama tended to explain the complex reasons that Romney’s vague policy promises on taxes and spending are mutually exclusive. But when it came to programs for the elderly, he took a step back and emphasized his underlying philosophical difference with Romney. Obama noted that his grandmother, who worked her whole life and helped to raise him, was dependent on Social Security and Medicare in her old age. “The word ’entitlement‘ implies some dependency on the government. These are folks who’ve worked hard, like my grandmother,” said Obama. If Obama were a little more aggressive, as he should have been throughout the night, he could have drawn that out and explained that Romney thinks retirees, who make up a significant portion of the 47 percent, are spoiled brats.
Before the debate had even ended the “spin room” ritual began in the press filing center. Both sides essentially fit the evening’s events into their pre-existing campaign narratives. For Romney, that means arguing Obama simply can’t win a debate on the economy after having been in office for four years of high unemployment and growing budget deficits. For Obama, it means trusting that his more likeable demeanor will win out.
From talking to the assorted campaign spokespersons it was apparent that Romney’s team was more confident in their candidate’s performance. Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom flatly declared, “Mitt Romney was the clear winner.”
“Tonight is a dramatic moment in this campaign,” predicted Rubio. “I think there are a few million Americans who might have made up their minds tonight.” (That estimate is probably off by a few million.) The Romney camp’s spin, in essence, is that Obama was reluctant to talk about the economy because he cannot brag about his record. “Obama doesn’t have a good answer to the question, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’" Said Romney advisor Kevin Madden.
Multiple Romney surrogates pointed to Obama’s suggesting that they move on from the discussion of tax and economic policy after it ran long that as a high point of the evening. “President Obama doesn’t want to talk about taxes, the deficit or the economy,” crowed Rubio.
The Obama campaign shied away from claiming they had won the debate outright. They were besieged by reporters asking questions premised on the assumption that Romney had won, and they pushed back by arguing that Obama’s sedate performance was more likable.
The media tends to view debates through the prism of whoever was on offense as the winner, so the Obama team tried to recast Romney’s energetic and combative demeanor as “testy.” “You might say [Romney] was aggressive, some would say testy,” said Obama adviser David Plouffe. “You guys can give [Romney] style points, I thought he was testy,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “If you’re at home you have to ask, do you want that for the next four years?” Obama, Messina argued, “Came off as what he is, a calm leader.”
The Obama campaign vacillated between two slightly contradictory arguments: that Romney’s performance was superior in style alone, and that Obama was more likable. Obama spokesperson Stephanie Cutter tweeted that “Romney won on style, lost on substance.” But if Obama was more likable, didn’t he win on style?
The style versus substance frame was connected to one of the Obama campaign’s other major talking points: that Obama, in Messina’s words, “spoke to the American people like adults.” Every Obama representative used a variation on that line. What it means is that Obama carefully explicated the inevitable adverse impacts of Romney’s policy proposals, such as raising taxes on the middle class, gutting funding for programs like education and increasing the deficit. Obama levels with the American people about the hard choices we face. We cannot cut tax rates for the wealthy and increase defense spending, as Romney promises to do, without incurring those results. Romney simply asserts, without evidence, that he will magically lower tax rates without decreasing tax revenue, increase defense spending, increase funding for education and balance the budget by cutting funding for PBS. Obama is telling the truth, while Romney is lying. But what makes the Obama campaign so confident that the American people prefer to be treated like adults, rather than told they can have their cake and eat it to? Remember, this is the country that elected George W. Bush.
So far, the Obama campaign seems to have been vindicated. He won last time, and his greater likability has indeed kept him ahead thus far in this campaign. Obama’s representatives were also pleased to note that Romney doubled down on his unpopular plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. That too is part of what has kept Obama in the lead. But that was not the debate’s main focus. Romney needed a turning point tonight, and he may well have gotten it.
For more on President Obama’s relative passivity during last night’s debate, read John Nichols’s latest.