Thursday, October 4, 2012
For Barack Obama, this debate unfolded like one of those nightmarish innings in baseball that begins innocently enough but ends with six earned runs (Texas Rangers vs. Oakland A's style).
Romney started with a crisp base hit into centerfield, but, hey, it was off a good Obama changeup. Then Romney walked, and after that, a bunt single sent him to third.
Then there was a Romney double off the left-field wall; after that, he reached on an error, then he cracked another single, then a triple.
Suddenly, it became very clear that Obama was rattled and could only throw a strike that hung, while Romney was playing with the kind of discipline we all expected, but with the carefree doggedness of an Oakland A's underdog.
The president, meanwhile, was Ryan Dempster, and just because Obama's been great in the past doesn't mean that Josh Hamilton catches every fly ball into center, right?
But for as bad as the president was, make no mistake -- Mitt Romney was a big reason for it.
He managed to break down a remarkable amount of information into clear, precise points. His extensive debate prep showed but so did his expansive intellect. He didn't just memorize the periodic table the night before the exam.
He kind of distributed the exam.
I remember an anecdote about the great physicist Robert Oppenheimer. When he was standing for his oral doctoral exam at the University of Gottingen, one of his professors told a colleague that he had to cut the exam short because Oppenheimer was actually starting to ask the committee questions they couldn't answer.
Romney might not have been that good, but he did wrest control of the debate from everyone, including Jim Lehrer, and PBS doesn't go down easy.
But the surprising thing isn't that Romney came prepared -- we saw plenty of that in the GOP primary debates -- the thing that kicked him up a notch was that he was able to deliver attack-after-attack without seeming, well, mean.
Why? Because he sounded passionate about what he believed. Conservatives have always distrusted him (even when he's saying things they like) because they just don't believe he really means it. Well, Wednesday night, he didn't just seem to mean it, he seemed to breathe it.
Now here are the three big things moving forward.
First, as Charles Krauthammer noted, Romney showed he had a lot of "nerve" during the debate.
That's a big deal. Why? Well, the GOP base was never going to get excited about Romney and they're still not going to be thrilled with his proposals -- he's not really offering much red meat.
But what they want, what they've pined for over the past four years, is someone who can stand next to Obama and knock him around.
That explained the brief fling with Donald Trump, with Bachmann, with Cain (well, maybe not, Cain. Nothing explained that. As theologians and physicists strain to note, there are things in the universe we just can't ever explain). Most importantly, that's why Newt kind of, almost, sort of, won. He was the great answer to Obama -- the guy who'd deliver the pounding the grassroots wanted to give the president.
Romney was finally that guy on Wednesday night, and the base is going to love him for it. The bonus for Romney? Uncommitted voters seemed to love it, too.
Second, for as bad as this night was for Obama, don't sleep on the prez. He's an uber-competitive guy, and the "Romney won" headlines have to be killing him at a personal; not just political level.
As many have said, he didn't use a single inflammatory attack on Romney -- nothing about the 47% video, nothing about Bain, nothing that had sharp edges or piranha teeth.
He will come next time, and he will get all alpha, and he will do very well.
Third, for the first time since the Ryan pick, Romney has momentum.
He's going to get peppy and big crowds the next few weeks, and he'll reflect that enthusiasm. Ed Rollins noted today that after Reagan's disastrous first debate with Mondale, his advisers knew they had to energize him. So they sent him to a rally before the second debate, that fired him up, and he delivered his famous performance thereafter.
You'll probably see national polls showing dead heats this weekend, and a few might actually show Romney leading. That bounce will probably show up everywhere, but was this enough to turn Ohio (however ephemerally) into a genuine tossup, or will it remain lean Obama? Because Ohio still is truly "the heart of it all."