Scores: Obama 84 | Romney 79
Judge: Andy Hume
Barack Obama came through a lively and at times bruising debate with Mitt Romney and emerged as a clear winner, due not just to his own strengths but also his opponent’s errors.
The President was on the offensive from the earliest moments of the debate. Although he spent a lot of time defending his record, which was clearly a tactic he felt important to pursue, it was more noteworthy that almost every answer contained an attack on his rival, which made his responses less defensive than they might otherwise have sounded. With Romney also attacking Obama’s record in office, it made for some strong exchanges, despite the limitations of the town hall format. Obama was for the most part less verbose than he has been in the past, and although both candidates preferred to talk around the topics under discussion rather than the substance of the questions themselves, they scored fairly high on matter.
The manner of the two candidates was fascinating to watch. Romney performed powerfully in the early portion of the debate. Attacking your opponent directly is harder in the town hall format, which rewards empathetic and conciliatory responses over adversarial ones. But the Republican challenged Obama directly on more than one occasion and did so effectively. He took command of the question on gas prices, absolutely dominating the President and telling him “you’ll get your chance in a moment, I’m speaking”. However, this very strong moment was then undermined by the first of a number of attempts to override the female moderator, which played badly and made him come across as somewhat rude – a charge leveled at Joe Biden in last week’s VP debate, but magnified by the different format of this clash.
For his part, Obama’s manner was generally very strong. His vocal delivery can sometimes sound flat and at times in this debate he overcompensated, sounding unnaturally high-voiced and forced in some answers. But he appeared energized and engaged throughout, and showed flashes of humour which helped him win key points, for example getting out of a potentially tricky exchange with Romney on their respective pension investments.
The early portion of the debate was an even match, and Romney’s strong attack on gas prices seemed set to swing the contest in his favour. Obama came back strongly on taxes, adding up all the uncosted tax cuts in the Romney plan and capping it with a memorable line – “You were an investor; you wouldn’t take such a sketchy deal” – that turned Romney’s own business record on him brilliantly. He put clear water between himself and his challenger on the Libya question, a sore subject for the administration but one which he rescued and then won with an answer which, for once, showed some genuine passion and anger – aided and abetted by the moderator’s controversial decision to correct Romney’s facts in the middle of his answer, which clearly unsettled him.
The final moment that settled the debate, for me, was the final answer of the night. Asked to address the most common misperception about him, Mitt Romney told the audience that he cared about “100% of the American people”. Though clearly crafted as a pre-emptive answer to the Obama attack line that observers had been anticipating, it was an unforced blunder, giving his rival the perfect excuse to use the only statistic that anyone will remember tomorrow. Obama took full advantage, reminding the audience of Romney’s fateful “47%” comment earlier in the year, and winning a close but clear victory in the debate.