Three political experts discuss the highlights and next steps for the presidential candidates after the first debate in Denver, Colo., on Oct. 3.
Dr. Craig Smith
Professor of Communication at California State University–Long Beach and director of the Center for First Amendment Studies, Smith is a former speechwriter for Gerald Ford.
ROMNEY—Was alive, alert, aggressive without being a bully, he enumerated points which gave him credibility. I thought he pretty much did everything that a debate coach would want their pupil to do, that is rare! There were a few answers that could have been tightened a little bit; when he was asked about bringing health insurance to Massachusetts, I think he could have more crisply said what is good for Massachusetts may not be good for the United States.
OBAMA—Barack Obama has mastered the material; he knows what he is talking about. His problem was he didn’t organize it very well. You had Romney saying 1,2,3 and had Obama wandering all over the place. His demeanor wasn’t good for the first 30 minutes, he was internalizing, looked down, hunched over. He finally figured out he had better look up and look at the camera and when he started doing that he got a little better for it.
Right from the beginning Romney looked more presidential than the president, the initial appearance was one of the high points of the debate. The second thing for me as a teacher was how you direct the clash, and I thought Romney was so good at saying 1,2,3 here is my answer, this seemed so crisp and so on point that that too was a high point. Romney’s use of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution was just superb and really wrapped things up for him in a very tidy and moving way.
The moderator needed to keep better track of time, and was not as tough keeping them on topic, allowing them to wander all over the place. He was not as good a rule-keeper as good he should have been and the result was Barack Obama got a lot more time than Romney and you don’t want the appearance of unfairness in a debate.
I did like the back and forth that was allowed, the more of that we can get the better because the more direct clash you can have the more it is like a real debate instead of a joint press conference.
It was substantial and one of the better presidential debates we can have. When they go this well and we have two smart guys up there articulating their vision, it gives the voters a real choice and we really have that this year. The public is not responding to the advertising attacks and the debates give them something authentic to look at. People who didn’t watch the first debate are going to read the commentary and say I didn’t watch the first debate, I better watch the next one.
Dr. Kathleen Kendall’s Opinions
Research Professor of Communication at the University of Maryland, Dr. Kendall’s specializes in political campaign communication, particularly in the presidential primaries and in presidential debates.
ROMNEY—Romney seemed knowledgeable, reasonable, and competent, and this all contributed to his image as an equal for the president, a benefit in firming up support from donors and also reaching out to the middle class. His critique of the Obama administration and identifying weaknesses was a strength. His weakness was a lack of specifics—he didn’t tell exactly what he would do in his health and tax plans. He said he would have some regulation, but it wasn’t clear what they would be. He had unsupported assertions, particularly in the conclusion where he said Obama would cut Medicare and reduce the military in a dangerous way. Those are very important points.
OBAMA—Was best on Romney’s lack of specifics and he raised questions about the credibility of Romney. Obama made direct eye contact with the viewers, looking into the audience and speaking to them directly. That is a dynamic way of grabbing audience attention. He was good on his personal examples, referring to his 20th wedding anniversary and his grandmother’s use of social security and Medicare. Obama looked tired and was weakest in the way he answered Romney’s attacks in cutting the military and on green technology. They were things never addressed, even though cutting Medicare was mentioned twice.
There were not really key moments, but I thought it was surprising Romney rested on his past record as governor of Massachusetts. He spoke with pride about his accomplishments, for which he has been criticized by conservatives. This time he was talking about his achievements, that was a big change.
The format was excellent, developed in a sustained way, and with policy positions discussed, they were better able to articulate what they would do. With three topics on the economy, that gave more flexibility and Jim Lehrer can take credit for that—he made a decision to let them continue. I am glad there are two more presidential debates, as there are topics that are not yet finished.
Both candidates were informed, confident, respectful of each other, and they both came across as leaders. There wasn’t a huge difference in their knowledge level as it came across in the debate and therefore that benefited Romney. Though he is a serious and credible candidate for president, he did not really show that the administration had failed. He raised some serious questions, but many of them were refuted by Obama effectively. Nor did he convincingly say that he had a replacement for the status quo which would solve the problem he made assertions about it, so it wasn’t a decisive victory for either side
Dr. John Hudak’s Opinions
Political scientist and Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, Hudak’s research includes campaigns and elections, bureaucratic process, and legislative-executive interaction.
OBAMA—I can’t remember a worse 10 minutes for an incumbent president, having to adjust to the debate format—it was a disaster. No one tells the president of the United States to stop speaking except in a presidential debate—that is an odd dynamic. Obama’s performance improved as the debate went on; when he talked about healthcare, he turned the debate around. The president’s biggest weakness was not necessarily what he said, but what he didn’t say. He missed many opportunities to criticize Gov. Romney.
ROMNEY—Put in a solid performance. The best part was his discussion of his tax plan and how it would help everyone in America, how it connected to jobs, energy, manufacturing a whole host of areas that are important to everyone. He answered the criticism of his 47 percent remarks without saying anything about 47 percent.
For Obama, it was in the discussion of health care: Obama gave the most detailed clear and convincing defense of Obamacare. He hadn’t done that yet, but he did it last night very effectively. Romney’s finest moment was Obama’s worst. In Obama’s discussion of taxation, Romney interrupted him and retook the conversation. Obama looked powerless.
Another really important moment was the opening statement, Obama’s was fine but Romney, right from the start, showed such confidence and command it set the tone and the lens through which viewers watched the debate.
I think the debate worked on one level, they ended up talking to each other and really getting into the weeds in ways that almost never happens in presidential debates. The problem was that happened despite Jim Lehrer. Romney took control and really manipulated Lehrer in a way that was masterful. Jim Lehrer was the bystander and Mitt Romney was the moderator. It became a free-for-all in terms of topics, and that I think was a disservice to the viewers
A lot of people expected that the election was just going to be boring and a tie—it is not. The election is a horse race now, people think Romney has a shot. Both Romney and Obama had more specifics and detail during the debate than they have in the past; it will now be up to fact checkers and journalists to untangle them.
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