“In the red corner, at 6 foot 2 and $210 million, the challenger Willard ‘Hit’ Romney! And in the blue corner… the President appears to be writing and looking down a lot…”

If Governor Romney was seen as aggressive in the University of Denver, where the first of three (four including the running mates’) presidential debates was held, that was entirely intentional. Gallup Daily tracking polls had President Obama ahead by five percentage points nationally going into this debate, a considerable lead at this late stage. And yet the consensus is that Romney was the clear winner of this debate; though not quite the new frontrunner.

Obama looked lethargic and distracted for the whole 90 minutes. He seemed to share little of the enthusiasm that Bill Clinton, his Democratic predecessor in the White House, had for these debates.  He always sought to defend his own record, rather than attack that of his opponent. When the generally unpopular Affordable Health Care Act (colloquially known as Obamacare) was discussed, the President could have instantly mentioned Romney’s support for a near identical law in Massachusetts. Instead, he seemed just a little too slow in bringing this up, which typified his night.

Conversely, Romney’s night was completely atypical of his entire campaign. He looked composed, when for has so long he has appeared awkward; he was assertive when during the primaries he was often on the defensive; and he was lucid in conveying his opinions and beliefs. He also won the debate. This resulted not through preparation (though that has certainly made an impact), but in how he countered Obama’s strategy. While the President was content to remain cautious and stay on the defensive, in essence defending his lead in the polls, Romney managed to attack his administration’s record without seeming petty. This distinction was crucial, because while polls suggest many independents do not believe the President has done a good job, Obama is still far more personally popular than Romney. Obama is seen as far more likeable, so resorting to ad hominem attacks (as both parties have so frequently done during the rest of the campaign) would have accomplished little.

Romney’s night was completely atypical of his entire campaign. He looked composed, when for has so long he has appeared awkward, he was assertive when during the primaries he was often on the defensive, and he was lucid in conveying his opinions and beliefs. He also won the debate.

In addition to levelling these criticisms, Romney also used this debate as an opportunity to move his position towards the centre. And when 67 million Americans are watching you debate, what an opportunity it is. Having presented himself as “severely conservative” during the Republican primaries, he tried to win over moderates with statements like “I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people” and “regulation is essential”. For perhaps the first time this year, he talked openly and in glowing terms about his own healthcare law in Massachusetts, claiming ownership of its more popular measures (particularly on providing coverage to patients with pre-existing medical conditions). This movement towards the middle continued; on the day following the debate, he even walked back his infamous “47%” comments concerning Americans dependent on government, describing them as “just completely wrong”.

Obviously it is typical for candidates running for office to speak in partisan terms during the primaries and more centrist ones during a general election, but Mitt Romney’s shift to the centre has come relatively late. Perhaps this is due to the fervour of conservative groups (such as the Tea Party) within his own party’s base. Maybe he wanted to ensure Obama had fewer details of his policy plans so the President couldn’t denigrate them in the debates. Regardless, it is a move Romney had to make; now that he has we will see if Romney truly has the mettle to withstand the inevitable counter-attack in the following debates.

The counter-attack may be successful; it may not. But it is most certainly inevitable, and Obama will have to be far more aggressive than before. In Ohio, which is seen as a true bellwether state (no Republican has ever become President without winning Ohio), the President is showing signs of this already. He has been to the state 14 times this year alone, but his visit on the Saturday following the debate was probably the most important. After likening Romney’s flip-flops to “Extreme Makeover-debate edition”, he repeated his claim that Mitt Romney would prioritise tax cuts for the wealthy ahead of tax cuts for the working and middle classes. A string of new attack ads followed in the state, and their portrayal of Romney as a “vulture capitalist” who promoted outsourcing of American jobs while at Bain Capital private equity has struck a chord with the Buckeye State’s working class. These accusations hit especially hard considering Romney’s most fervent defenders often include other private equity executives, including Bill Bain, the founder of Bain Capital. As for the workers who lost their jobs while under Bain Capital? They get a starring role in Obama’s attack ads. This is the type of aggressive strategy that Obama needs if he is to avoid a Republican resurgence following the first debate.

Romney has campaigned for the presidency for, including the 2008 primary, over six years. In all that time, nothing from him has come close to re-energising his supporters. Until now. This strong debate performance could be the spark to mobilise his own heretofore apathetic base, while his move towards the centre could draw support from more moderate voters. Mitt Romney’s campaign has hit hard and left a clear mark. The question now is how hard Obama can hit back.

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  8. The Second Presidential Debate: Obama plays a “binder”
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