Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Christopher Sands

GET UPDATES FROM Christopher Sands
 

Presidential Debates: Like the Stanley Cup of Politics

Posted: 10/04/2012 5:34 pm

Last night the first presidential candidates' debate of the 2012 election took place in Denver. It was the start of a new phase in the election campaign -- the final month, when a larger number of Americans, including likely and unlikely voters, begins to pay attention.

It was probably easier to be one of those voters who hasn't been paying attention. For political junkies (and just about all of us who live within the Washington, DC Beltway count ourselves in this group) the debate was jarring: neither debater behaved according to the expectations set over the past several months.

President Barack Obama is known for his gift of gab, his charm, and likeability. He is smart, and typically in command of policy detail. And on topics like U.S. health care, he is normally passionate.

In the Denver debate, Obama was tongue-tied at several points. He looked tired, and seemed dour. As the questions got tougher, he got cranky and combative -- with mild-mannered Jim Lehrer, the debate's moderator, rather than with his opponent.

Obama was also befuddled on policy. His defense of his health care reforms was confusing and lacked detail. The president seemed unfamiliar with his opponents' policy proposals, and lazily offered his own take on what Mitt Romney probably intended to do: a laundry list of clich├ęs about Republican policies we've heard before from Democratic candidates at least since the 1932 campaign in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt caricatured Herbert Hoover.

Worst of all, Obama seemed unfamiliar with his campaign's multimillion dollar attack ads. He failed to confront Romney on his dismissive comments about the 47 per cent of Americans who had grown too dependent upon government to vote Republican. Obama never mentioned Bain Capital, the company Romney once headed.

BLOG CONTINUES BELOW SLIDESHOW

Loading Slideshow...
  • President Barack Obama shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama arrives on stage October 3, 2012 for the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney make their way to their lecterns October 3, 2012 after shaking hands for the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wave October 3, 2012 after shaking hands as he arrives on stage for the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer (C) of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer (C) of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) speaks during the first presidential debate with US President Barack Obama (R) October 3, 2012 at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US First Lady Michelle Obama (2nd-L) listens as US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama speaks during his debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer (C) of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during his debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during his debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer (C) of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer (C) of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (L) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finish their debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shake hands October 3, 2012 at the conclusion of the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) kisses First Lady Michelle Obama in Denver, Colorado, on October 3, 2012 at the end of the first presidential debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney share a laugh October 3, 2012 at the conclusion of the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shake hands October 3, 2012 at the conclusion of the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney share a laugh October 3, 2012 at the conclusion of the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney walk towards their wifes October 3, 2012 at the conclusion of the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney listen as moderator Jim Leherer speaks October 3, 2012 during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney look down October 3, 2012 during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (top) speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (bottom) at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during his debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to moderator Jim Lehrer during his debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (2n-L) and First Lady Michelle Obama (L) join Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (2nd-R) and his family at the conclusion of the first presidential debate on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, greet the audience after his debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during his debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) following the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) following the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) following the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama gestures on stage following his debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican challenger Mitt Romney (L) participate in their first debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and US First Lady Michelle Obama (C) walk on stage before Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) following their first debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) arrive for the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stands with his wife Ann and family following the first presidential debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stands with his wife Ann following the first presidential debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican challenger Mitt Romney shake hands following their first debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican challenger Mitt Romney (L) participate in their first debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool, Rick Wilking)

  • President Barack Obama smiles at moderator Jim Lehrer during the first presidential debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool, Rick Wilking)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate the first presidential debate in Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool, Rick Wilking)

  • President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

Mitt Romney was also surprising. Even though he's been running for the presidency since at least 2007, most Americans perceive him to be dull, nice but somewhat robotic and perhaps a bit too perfect and plastic. Months of attack ads launched against him, first by his Republican rivals for the party's presidential nomination, and then by Democrats, sought to define him as a heartless plutocrat with a secretive conservative agenda. Romney's occasional gaffes -- including the comment about 47 per cent of the country -- appeared to confirm a negative impression.

But in the Denver debate, we saw a different Mitt Romney: silver-tongued, charming (especially when talking about his family), and in complete command of policy detail. He was passionate, optimistic about the future of the country, but concerned about its present course. He offered ideas, often in response to openings he was given by Obama's wild mischaracterizations of his proposals.

Above all, Romney seemed presidential -- that hard to define quality that most voters only know when they see it.

How did Canadians tuning in for the debate perceive the candidates on stage in Denver? Based on my Twitter feed, Canadians fall into the same two camps as Americans. Those who have been paying attention to the U.S. election campaigns so far, watching the ads on YouTube, and reading the U.S. pundits online were similarly startled by the poor performance by Barack Obama, and the strong showing by Mitt Romney. And those who only recently began to pay attention saw Romney as a credible future U.S. president and wondered where the Obama they remember from 2008 had gone.

This first debate seemed ideally-suited to have an impact on Canadian perceptions of the U.S. presidential race because it was in many ways closer to the norm in Canadian politics. Parliamentary government produces strong debaters who typically shine in one-on-one confrontations over policy detail. And Jim Lehrer was about as prominent as a moderator as the Speaker of the House of Commons is, intervening only rarely and gently.

In the United States, candidate debates tend to be more theatrical and it is rare to see politicians talk about substance for an extended period without resorting to prepared one-liners and sound bites, or appeals to the audience for approval.

There are two more debates between Obama and Romney, a "town hall" style event in New York on October 16 that will be more American in style, and a foreign policy debate in Florida on October 22 that will give the candidates a second chance at the more formal debate format used in Denver.

It is the phase of U.S. presidential campaigns that most closely resembles the Stanley Cup finals, with more people paying attention, and every game played for keeps. Romney has the advantage for now, but Obama has been to the finals before and is the reigning champion. Game on!

 
 
 

Follow Christopher Sands on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sandsathudson

FOLLOW CANADA POLITICS