Romney did well. Obama did better. And increasingly better over the course of the evening. I said earlier this evening that a candidate always has to be really careful getting into fights or going on the attack in a Townhall format. But I think Obama pulled it off. In fact, he managed to effectively balance an unwieldy mix of goals he brought into the debate. Be tough. Be presidential. Connect with the audience. Reengage supporters. Push an effective critique of Mitt Romney. Over the course of 90 minutes the cadence of tension and body language and power slowly arched in Obama’s favor.
Two moments stand out to me.
First was the engagement on Libya. This was supposed to be where Romney delivered the coup de grace. But Obama held his own and more. He overmatched Romney.
And then there was that moment. Not possible to rehearse or affect. The Romney team has gotten themselves into such a lather about this non-scandal of Obama not using the word ‘terrorism’ until days or weeks later that Romney couldn’t imagine that Obama could have said it on day one. Again, you can’t fake that.
That look. I’ve got hit! Are you sure that’s what you mean? Is everyone else seeing this? Romney was downright giddy. But of course anybody who covers or watches the news knows that’s exactly what Obama said. And Candy Crowley had no choice but to correct Romney. Watch it here.
It was a small humiliation but one that may stand in for many more untruths Romney has uttered and never been called on.
Then there was the final engagement where Obama literally had the last word on the 47%.
It wasn’t a throwaway phrase when I said Romney did well. He was strong, especially at the beginning. He had a number of opportunities to pound his core messages of the disaster of the last four years and Obama’s failure to deliver. But over the course of the evening Romney slowly lost the battle to own the debate and the room. And the old awkward grin Romney began to reemerge.
But I’d conclude with this. No one controls an election. At best it’s a high stakes run over white water rapids where one candidate has more luck and skill than the other. You can’t know the effect of a debate or a good performance or a bad one. And certainly we know that campaigns like life are never fair.
What a candidate needs to do — what his or her supporters need them to do — is make the whole case, hit every point, not think of any great rejoinder three hours later when you’re brushing your teeth before bed. Obama had that night. And whatever it accomplishes for him and his campaign, his supporters desperately needed him to have that night.
I think he made a strong case for persuadable voters. And I suspect his supporters will say: ‘Yeah, he made the whole case. There wasn’t any point he didn’t make.’ You can’t control who wins. But you can manage things in such a way that you can say, ‘We made our case well and completely. Now let’s take it to the people.’ A few days ago I wrote that the effect of the debate on Obama’s supporters who was “something more akin to soldiers going into battle and then looking over their shoulder to see the commander has turned around and is going the other way.” With tonight’s performance, Obama changed that equation dramatically.
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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.