Robert Bennett: Debate gave Romney a boost he needs

Published: Monday, Oct. 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

John Rossitto watches the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney from a restaurant in San Diego, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Gregory Bull, AP

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Last Thursday morning, Republicans filled the airwaves and Internet with blogs, phone calls, emails and tweets that shared their joy over Mitt Romney's dominating performance in the presidential debate the night before. Democrats, on the other hand, were spinning and making excuses, the most bizarre of which came from Al Gore, who said that Obama lost because he had not been in Denver long enough to become acclimated to its high altitude.

Will the impact of Romney's triumph be a game changer, as Republicans hope, or a momentary blip to be soon forgotten, as Democrats hope? No one knows. The two campaigns are like two football teams who have gone back to their respective locker rooms after a rough first half, toward the end of which the momentum shifted to the team that had been behind. There is still plenty of game to be played, and the final score will depend on the effectiveness of the adjustments each team makes. It could go either way.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan had a bad first debate against Walter Mondale in Kentucky, whose performance there earned him the temporary name of "Louisville Slugger." Reagan, a trained actor who knew how to take direction after muffing a scene, made whatever adjustments were needed and righted the ship in the second debate, where he made his famous quip, "I will not make age an issue in this campaign," as he said he would not comment on "my opponent's youth and inexperience." He got a laugh, got back in charge and went on to beat Mondale in 49 out of 50 states.

In contrast, after Gore had a bad first outing against George W. Bush in 2000, whatever adjustments he and his team made didn't help. He overcompensated for his earlier errors and looked even worse the second time around. After that second debate, a foreign diplomat who watched it with me summarized it by saying, "I think George W. Bush just won the election." That time the debate probably was a game changer.

To blunt the impact of Romney's performance, Democrats are pounding on what they claim are his errors of fact. That may work, because it resonates with the barrage of advertising that has been thrown at him depicting him as a flip-flopper who cannot be believed. However, less ideological voters are more moved by impressions of what kind of person they think a candidate is than by what statistics he quotes.

Romney's biggest boost from the debate came from the fact that, to many who were seeing him for the first time, he looked and sounded "presidential" — energized, dignified and competent enough to be president. When he dismissed Obama's description of a tax provision that Obama thought was too pro-business by saying, "I have been in business 25 years and have no idea what you're talking about," his record of business success made that statement credible. One commentator said, "He looked like a teacher talking to a student." Quite a comment, given that the "student" was the president of the United States.

Whatever happens from here on, Romney's performance did what had to be done for him to stay in the game. A disaster, or even a flat performance, could have finished him. Now, however, both he and his troops have been rejuvenated, which is no small thing in a contest where zeal and enthusiasm are vital for victory. As the two teams come out of their locker rooms, it will be very interesting to see how the coming adjustments manifest themselves in the second half.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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