When Mitt Romney took the stage in Denver, he already had two strikes against him.
Twice before, his advisers had signaled a campaign-changing event. Yes, his campaign lacked focus, they admitted. But just wait till he announces his choice for vice-president. That would completely turn things around. It didn't. Paul Ryan has proved to be a worse pick than Sarah Palin. Strike 1.
OK, maybe we didn't get the bounce out of Ryan we expected, they acknowledged next. But just wait till Tampa. The Republican National Convention will electrify the nation. That didn't happen, either. The convention was a dud, remembered only for Clint Eastwood's embarrassing chair trick. Strike 2.
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But, wait! Don't write us off yet. We have one more chance, the Romney team pleaded: the first presidential debate. In the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, they insisted that Romney would rise to the occasion, reveal his superior debating skills and breathe new life into his campaign. Third time's the charm, as they say. This time, they were right. No Strike 3.
Indeed, Romney had a good night. He was energetic, aggressive and assertive. He was well-rehearsed. He came prepared with a strong message – that Obama had been president for four years and failed, and that he, Romney, would do a better job. He dominated the debate, ran all over Jim Lehrer (who looked like one of those replacement referees) and at one point came as close as a gentleman could come to calling the president a liar: "Mr. President, you're entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts!"
Trust me. I was on the debate team in high school and college. I later coached high school debate and judged many contests. And I've made a good living debating the issues on radio and television. On points and style, Romney was the clear winner in this first presidential debate.
But Romney didn't win the debate as much as President Obama lost it. The president seemed asleep at the wheel. His answers were often long, rambling, and – dare I say? – professorial. Not once did he interrupt Gov. Romney to correct his misstatements. Three times, he said "I'm sorry" for talking so long. And he went 90 minutes without even mentioning important differences between himself and Romney on immigration, the Dream Act, the auto bailout, repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, or women's health.
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Perhaps most surprisingly, while Romney repeatedly painted himself as the man who would fight for and defend the middle class, Obama never turned to him and said: "That's not what you said behind closed doors to your big donors in Boca Raton, Mitt." He let Romney get away without once having to defend his comments about the 47 percent.
Which is not to say that Romney always told the truth; He didn't. He exaggerated, or lied, time and time again – about health care, about Medicare, about his tax plan and about Obama's record on jobs. Yet, rather than confront Romney, Obama simply shook his head and said nothing. No doubt, in post-debate analysis, independent fact-checkers will do their job and expose Romney's lies. But that will be too little, too late. It was Obama's job to rebut the lies on the spot, and he failed to do so.
Nowhere was Romney farther from the truth than in accusing President Obama of cutting $716 billion out of Medicare benefits – the same charge made by Paul Ryan in Tampa. As the New York Times reported the next morning, "While fact-checkers have repeatedly debunked this claim, it remains a standard attack line for Mr. Romney." In fact, he returned to it three times in the Denver debate.
Obama could have pointed out that the $716 billion did not include any cuts in benefits; that, in fact, they came from important reforms to Medicare Advantage, by ending over-billing and other fraudulent practices by insurance companies; and that the exact same $716 billion in reforms were contained in Paul Ryan's budget plan, approved by House Republicans twice. He could have. He should have. But he didn't. On my radio and TV show, I've done a better job defending Obama than he did defending himself Wednesday night.
For Obama supporters, the only consolation is that this was only the first of three presidential debates. Let's hope Obama shows up for the next one.