The first presidential debate focused on the economy and jobs, and GOP challenger Mitt Romney made the most of it.
He pummeled the incumbent with a barrage of statistics leavened with stories of the economy’s victims that he’s met on the campaign trail: A prosecutor with empathy.
As Democrats put it charitably, it was not President Barack Obama’s best night.
At times the president had the air of the nerd who had studied hard for a debate with the conservative Romney of the primaries, but was flummoxed when the old “Massachusetts moderate” showed up for the debate at the University of Denver.
Even Romney’s biggest fans have to admit that his aggressive performance was based on yet another Etch-a-Sketch episode in Romney’s career. The GOP nominee has spent months embracing hard-right rhetoric to persuade his party’s conservatives that he is one of them.
In the Denver debate, he edged back from — or outright repudiated — many of the positions he’s held for the past year, not to mention the positions that his party has pushed in Congress with his acquiescence if not outright support. One example: Suddenly, government regulation is not the path to socialism but a responsible way to structure the economy, according to Romney. We’ve not heard that in months of Republican primaries, because that was not in Romney’s interest to say back then.
It was a sterling example of the classic strategy of the late Richard M. Nixon, who himself ran to the right in the GOP primaries and then ran back to the center for the general election. The ghost of Nixon was not needed to tell Romney that conservatives now have no place to go in the general election. They may feel betrayed, but they’re not likely to vote for Obama.
The few times that the president scored on Romney involved the challenger’s continued unwillingness to be specific about his budget plans. That also makes political sense: Romney’s supporters hear tax cuts, but undecided voters hear his pledge never to raise the deficit by cutting taxes.
That the two positions are inconsistent is something that Obama flailed around about, but he never landed a solid punch.
We still don’t know who the real Mitt Romney is. But the debate put him appreciably closer to becoming president anyway.
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