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October 23, 2012

The Third Presidential Debate

In short; Mitt Romney came across as presidential, while Barack Obama came across as defensive and at times petty. Romney was more confident, especially in the second half, whereas Obama less so. Romney looked relatively happy, whereas Obama angry. Romney looked like someone who thought he was going to win, and Obama as someone who thinks he may lose. Overall, Obama did ok in the first half, but Romney did better in the second half.

It's as if Obama can't quite believe that anyone has the temerity to seriously challenge him for a second term, and that this challenger can give him a good run for his money in a debate. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, as this is a guy who waltzed into both his state senate and U.S. senate seats. He did have a tough challenger in Hillary Clinton, but soundly beat John McCain last time around. For the past four years he's been surrounded by sycophants who tell him what he wants to hear, and a press who rarely asks tough questions.

I said this in my post on the second debate, and what I said then applies now also after the third debate:

If you looked at the second presidential debate in isolation, you can argue that one or another of the candidates won. There is just enough subjectivity in politics so that if you went through the exchanges and tallyied up a score of who won each you could conclude that either Romney or Obama won on "points." It's probably fair to say that the debate was a draw.

But of course you can't look at the debate in isolation. There are two other huge factors out there that influence opinion; first, the terrible state of the economy., and second, Romney's brilliant performance in the first debate and Obama's miserable performance in it.

The economy is so bad, and Obama's record so indefensible, that there are a lot of independent-moderate-swing voters who would like to vote for someone else, but are wary of trading the devil they know for a worse devil. Even though things may be bad now, they know that things can get even worse. For months now they've been hearing that that Mitt Romney was an ogre, and they were worried that it might be true. By this theory, they were wary of jumping ship.

As in the second debate, last night Mitt Romney proved that he is that viable alternative they've been looking for. He is confident, presidential, knowledgeable, and comes across as more polite than Obama, who as I said above looked angry and contemptuous of his competitor.

As such, we've almost had a reversal of the "likeability" factor. Obama is supposed to be more likeable, and Romney the cold, distant, chief executive of the super-large corporation. What we've seen is an Obama who is visually arrogant, snide, and unbelievably petty. Romney still might not be the friendliest guy in the room but he certainly doesn't smirk when you say something he doesn't like.

For that matter, we saw a similar role-reversal in the vice presidential debate. Joe Biden went from the guy you'd like to invite to your backyard bar-b-que to the drunk at the bar who gets right up in your face to loudly make a point and won't back off.

The other thing that so struck me last night was the tremendous disconnect between what Obama said and what he has actually done over the past four years. I noticed this too in the first two debates, but last night it was more pronounced than usual. Most of the time Obama sounded like the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, and I found myself thinking "if he actually governed as he talked I'd vote for him." Of course he doesn't, but it does make one realize how he can fool so many people.

Scoring this debate "on points" is not terribly useful. It has usefulness in judging debates in a college class, or when the candidates are not well known, but I don't think most people add things up when watching high-level debates. Not that getting your facts right or throwing zingers doesn't count, but it's not the main way most people look at them, I think.

A few insights from some of my favorite commentators:

Charles Krauthammer

I think it's unequivocal, Romney won....

What he did concentrate on is the big picture. People don't care what our policy on Syria is going to be. They care about how America is perceived in the world and how America carries itself in the world. And the high point is when he devastatingly leveled the charge of Obama going around the world on an apology tour. Obama's answer was ask any reporter and they will tell you it wasn't so. That's about as weak an answer you can get. And Romney's response to quote Obama saying that, 'we dictate to other nations,' and Romney said, 'we do not dictate to other nations, we liberate them.' And Obama was utterly speechless....

What Obama did is he kept interrupting, interjecting and his responses were almost all very small, petty attacks. The lowest was when he's talking about sanctions that are old. 'When I was working on sanctions you were investing in a company in China.' I mean that is the kind of attack you expect from a guy who is running for city council for the first time, that's not what you expect from the president. A personal attack about an investment when talking about Iran?

I thought Romney had the day. He looked presidential. The president did not. And that's the impression I think that is going to be left.

Jonah Goldberg

Obama looked a bit desperate at times, particularly when he was staring at Romney as if to force the former governor into spontaneous human combustion.

Ultimately, I think this debate served Romney well, even if the flash polls say Obama won narrowly on points (the polls said the same after the second debate and Romney's numbers continued to improve). If you went into this debate worried that Romney isn't a safe presidential pick, you came out reassured. Also, the long tail of this debate will play well to Romney's advantage in that he had a few more memorable lines and was better on the economy. Obama's one really memorable line -- about the navy and bayonets -- will not help him in swing states or with constituencies not already in his column.

Yuval Levin

If you knew nothing about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney except what you saw in their final debate, you would have assumed that Romney was the incumbent president, that Obama was the challenger trying to unseat him, that Romney was clearly leading in the polls going in and that he remained there going out. You wouldn't necessarily think Romney won the debate, but you would think he was winning the race

Stanley Kurtz

By the end I thought Romney had at least won his tie, and maybe even inched out victory by a nose. He did it by playing offense at critical moments during a generally restrained, respectful, and competent performance. In effect, Romney carefully pivoted between playing for a tie and a win, and the strategy worked.

Obama has got to be concerned now. He held up his end well enough, but the president needed more than that to halt Romney's momentum. Romney has now decisively established himself as a credible alternative to Obama. At a moment when the public thinks this country is headed in the wrong direction, that spells serious trouble for the incumbent.

Victor Davis Hanson

In the third debate, Obama had to show in 90 minutes that the first two debates were a fluke, and that Romney was not presidential enough to end his tenure. He did not do that by any means; for all his pique, interruptions, and attacks, Obama scored few points against the workmanlike Romney who knew that he simply did not have to lose. In any debate, when the two score comparable points, the more aggressive and petulant usually comes off less well, especially given that Romney's tone and expression were more like the reflective performance of his wildly successful first debate. The take-away quotes and sound bites from the debate will favor Romney.

I predict that either Obama will not gain traction from his performance or, more likely, his standing will continue to erode as the public becomes assured that Romney is not only more knowledgeable but more likable and steady, especially when the pressure was on him in this final debate and the president went all out to call him both untruthful and uncaring.

The key, again, is to ask whether Obama will arrest the erosion in his support, and the answer is clearly no -- it will only continue as the third debate confirms the verdict that was established in the first and not altered in the second.

Bill Kristol

Mitt Romney is more than holding his own with Barack Obama tonight. Only two other challengers have done as well debating foreign policy with an incumbent president--Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter in 1980 and, to a lesser degree, Bill Clinton against George H.W. Bush in 1992. Reagan and Clinton won. Romney is now on track to becoming the third challenger to win in the last 32 years--and the first in 80 years to defeat an incumbent who didn't have a primary challenge. Tonight, Romney seems as fully capable as--probably more capable than--Barack Obama of being the next president. He probably will be.

Posted by Tom at October 23, 2012 7:36 AM

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Jonah Goldberg nailed it:

Obama looked a bit desperate at times, particularly when he was staring at Romney as if to force the former governor into spontaneous human combustion.

I also agree with you, Tom, in that Romney came off as more Presidential than Obama. I hope that you're right! We must get Obama out of the Oval Office.

Posted by: Always On Watch Author Profile Page at October 24, 2012 7:47 AM

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