POLITICS

Romney basks in glow of strong debate while Team Obama makes 'adjustments'

10/04/2012 02:52 EDT | Updated 12/04/2012 05:12 EST
WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney's slam dunk of a debate performance against a comparatively listless U.S. President Barack Obama is sparking talk of a renewed horse race a month before the Nov. 6 election while prompting fretful hand-wringing by bewildered Democrats.

Debates haven't historically changed the course of a U.S. presidential election campaign, but giddy Republicans are hoping 2012 could be the exception to that rule as they eagerly await a new batch of post-debate poll numbers.

Suddenly embraced and celebrated by Republicans who have long been cool to his candidacy, Romney was greeted to a hero's welcome when he bounded to the stage at a conservative event in Colorado on Thursday.

"You guys are going to have to cheer here, and then go out and knock on doors, and get people who voted for President Obama to see the light and come join our team," Romney said. "And if you do that, we'll all be able to come together and have a wonderful inauguration celebration in January."

Romney's performance will lead to a "dynamic shift in the campaign," Ed Gillespie, a top adviser to the Republican nominee, told MSNBC earlier in the day.

"A lot of people saw him for the first time, not in a 30-second attack ad or a 12-second snippet on the news, but got to hear him directly," he said. "I think it was a good thing."

Liberal commentators and Democratic pundits, meantime, were still trying to shake off the image of an ordinarily confident Obama looking tentative, unsure of himself and seemingly unwilling to fight back against Romney's attacks on his four years in office.

"It looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there," said James Carville, Bill Clinton's top strategist in the '92 election campaign.

"President Obama came in, he wanted to have a conversation. It takes two people to have a conversation. Mitt Romney came in with a chainsaw. He's trying to talk to a chainsaw."

Others were puzzled by Obama's failure to attack Romney on some of his biggest vulnerabilities — his remarks that 47 per cent of Americans are irresponsible government freeloaders, his years at the helm of private equity firm Bain Capital and his refusal to release more than two years of his tax returns.

They also wondered why he didn't challenge Romney on some assertions that were exaggerations or outright falsehoods.

Al Gore even questioned whether the altitude in Colorado might have affected Obama's performance.

"I'm going to say something controversial here," Gore, who lost the 2000 election to George W. Bush after his own poorly received debate performance, said on his Current TV network's post-debate show.

"Obama arrived in Denver ... just a few hours before the debate started. Romney did his debate prep in Denver. When you go to 5,000 feet and you only have a few hours to adjust — I don't know, maybe?"

Obama's re-election team, meantime, put on a brave face on Thursday, suggesting the president was going to come out swinging for the next debate on Oct. 16 in Hempstead, NY.

"I know the president is very much looking forward to seeing Governor Romney again," David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, said in a conference call to reporters. "He's gotten a good look at the Romney routine, and now we'll have another engagement, and I think it'll be really interesting."

He also acknowledged the disappointment many Obama supporters were experiencing, but hinted that the president's non-combative performance was a campaign strategy.

"I understand that our strong supporters feel very, very strongly that …. we should have plowed in on the 47 per cent, on his tax returns, on Bain, and so on," Axelrod said.

But most Americans watching, he added, "were more interested in their lives."

Obama's inner circle, indeed, reportedly determined it would have been unpresidential for Obama to go after Romney personally and aggressively. Instead, the president was hoping to appeal to the few remaining undecided voters by putting forth his vision for the country in a civilized, reassuring manner befitting a commander-in-chief.

Instead, say critics of that strategy, Obama's Republican rival looked more presidential. Those undecided voters may now have a more positive perception of Romney, who took a step to the centre from the far right of the political spectrum during the high-profile debate.

Axelrod, indeed, said Thursday that the Obama campaign would "make some adjustments" heading into the next debate.

Obama, meantime, seemed to have received the memo overnight, attacking Romney's insistence that he'll jumpstart a tepid U.S. economic recovery without providing details about how he'll do it.

"The man on stage last night doesn't want to be held to account ... for what he's been selling for the last year," Obama said at a Colorado campaign event.

"Here's the truth: Gov. Romney cannot pay for his $5 trillion tax plan without blowing up the deficit or sticking it to the middle class."

Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said even though Romney soared and Obama sputtered during their first verbal showdown, the event was largely unmemorable and likely won't have much lasting impact.

"It doesn't seem like, 25 years from now, there will be any moments from this debate included in any reporter's list of Top Five Debate Moments," Sabato and his colleagues wrote on his Crystal Ball blog on Thursday.

"And just because Romney won handily — and the press will report it that way — that does not mean voter preferences will necessarily change all that much. Often, voters can judge one candidate to have won a debate, but not change their ballot choice as a consequence."