itt Romney dominated last night’s debate. He controlled it. Conservatives, libertarians, and MSNBC hosts agree: A sharp Romney won a decisive victory.
Romney’s edge began from the first moment. When he congratulated President Obama on his anniversary, he made a lighthearted joke about how happy Obama must be to spend it “here with me.” It worked. The confidence and ease continued for 90 minutes, through playful jabs and substantive blows.
Throughout the primaries, Romney had to fight fellow Republicans in a slew of debates. This was the ultimate debate prep. Last night, however, was his best performance yet. He not only looked presidential, but also likable – a quality many of his critics have said he lacks. Obama was the opposite: He stumbled, acting irritated and flustered. He became petulant with the moderator about the allotted time, and betrayed his annoyance at Romney. It was the performance of a man who knew he was losing.
Candidates win debates with compelling performances. At one point, Romney looked at the President and said: “I’ve been in business for 25 years and I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Obama couldn’t explain – let alone sell – his own policies, at a possibly decisive moment. Romney, on the other hand, had articulated his plans and drew contrasts. He was direct, thorough, and concise.
For the first time since Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate, he has energized the conservative base of his party. But it’s too early to celebrate. Incumbent presidents have lost their first debates and gone on to win. The conventional wisdom said that Democratic candidate John Kerry beat President George W. Bush in the first debate of 2004. Walter Mondale clobbered President Ronald Reagan in 1984, only to see Reagan bounce back.
Romney enjoyed a good first quarter – possibly the best performance of his political career. Republicans demoralized by the latest polls have a new cause for hope. Democrats have a reason to question their confidence. Three quarters remain, but right now Obama looks a lot more vulnerable than he did just a day ago.