SALT LAKE CITY — First-time voter and University of Utah freshman Skyler Smith said he’s still undecided Wednesday about which candidate he wants to see in the White House after watching the first presidential debate.
But Smith said he liked what he heard from Mitt Romney thanks to what he said was a strong performance, even though he plans on campaigning for President Barack Obama in Colorado next weekend.
“I was extremely surprised – and pleasantly surprised – at how Mitt Romney did,” Smith said following a debate watching party at the university's Hinckley Institute of Politics that attracted some 175 students.
Obama, he said, seemed “rusty.” The 18-year-old said he’d give Romney the win, “but I wouldn’t put too much weight behind it yet because we still have so much more to talk about before the election. Neither of them have won my vote yet.”
Smith said while he agrees with the Democratic president on many social issues, he thought Romney was stronger on the economy, an issue that dominated the 90-minute debate.
Abby Pike, a U. junior majoring in political science and campaign management, raised a question during a post-debate discussion at the Hinckley Institute about whether the emphasis on the economy helped Romney.
“That is his biggest strength,” she said, noting her expectations were high for Romney going into the debate and she wasn’t disappointed.
Amber Carr, another first-time voter who remained undecided after the election, said she tended to agree most often with Romney, especially when he talked about giving states more control over federal programs.
But “you can tell that both of them want what’s best for this country," she said.
University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambliss said he was struck by how substantive the debate turned out to be.
“I was a little bit surprised and favorably impressed. The reason is that they spoke to issues and stayed away from put-downs or so-called zingers or emotional expressions,” Chambliss said. “They were talking policy.”
Chambliss said it was too soon to declare a winner since there are two more presidential debates, and the pair appeared evenly matched on substance.
However, he said Romney did score points on perception.
“What we saw was Romney looking the equal of the president,” Chambliss said.
Obama supporter Austin Kimmel, a U. sophomore, said both candidates “hit it right on…I think it’s going to be a very tight race after watching the debate.”
Romney sounded strong on economic issues, Kimmel said, while he believed Obama connected better with voters on health care. An entire segment of the debate focused on the president’s Affordable Care Act.
Craig Barrett, chairman of the University of Utah Republicans, said Romney “knocked it out of the park. He did amazingly well,” while Obama “didn’t seen interested. He seemed disconnected.”
Seeing Romney do well at a time when he is trailing in some polls was “energizing,” Barrett said. “It fired me up.”
The vice presidential candidates are scheduled to debate Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. The next presidential debate is set for Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.