The first presidential debate wasn’t even close. Gov. Romney crushed President Obama, leading to liberal despair and sinking poll numbers for the president.
The tables turned on Tuesday night, with the president scoring a decisive victory over a diminished Mitt Romney.
Some people will say I’m falling victim to a predictable media narrative (the champ falls down, only to rise again), but those critics are wrong. I’m not grading on a curve. President Obama won this debate convincingly.
Other people may complain about Candy Crowley’s moderating, the questions chosen to be asked by the crowd, and the disproportionate amount of time given to Obama. While those complaints have some merit, they didn’t affect the outcome of tonight’s debate. Good debaters can overcome those obstacles.
The key moment of tonight’s debate—one that will likely be replayed 20 years from now—came during a discussion about the administration’s handling of the Libyan embassy attack. This was an issue that Mitt Romney should have dominated, as the White House has been back on its heels when trying to defend its response.
Instead, a resolute Barack Obama stared at Mitt Romney, pointed his finger and said: “The suggestion that anybody on my team—the Secretary of State, our UN ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own—is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander in chief.”
When Mitt Romney tried to respond, he appeared to get one of his facts wrong. Moderator Candy Crowley corrected him, leading to the night’s only spontaneous applause from the audience. That appeared to fluster Gov. Romney so much that he actually turned to the president for help in clarifying the record (Obama, as one would expect, didn’t help him).
That exchange was emblematic of much of the debate, during which Obama appeared confident and aggressive while Romney appeared somewhat defensive and occasionally annoyed. By my count, Obama said some version of “that isn’t true” seven times, challenging Romney in a tone that was nowhere to be found in the first debate.
Gov. Romney had at least two other bad moments.
First, during a question about pay inequality, Obama began his answer by discussing his own grandmother. Romney began his answer by discussing his time as an executive, when, as a result of his instruction, subordinates brought him “binders full of women” to consider for a job.
Romney’s bureaucratic answer looked small next to Obama’s personal one.
Second, during his final answer, Romney opened the door to a “47 percent” attack by emphasizing his concern for 100 percent of the American people. That may have been a strategic choice to attempt to preemptively neutralize that attack; it may also have been necessary. But it didn’t work and only served to remind people of his original hidden video.
Still, Romney had several good moments. He offered a good response about gas prices and trade with China; he also delivered a convincing indictment of the president’s failures over the past four years.
The president wasn’t perfect. While answering a question about women’s pay inequality—which should have been a slam-dunk—the president lost some of his more important points with a meandering answer. And he was on the verge of overplaying his hand by interrupting Romney and the moderator, and bordered on smug a couple of times, apparently aware that he was winning this round.
But all in all, this was the president’s night. In my pre-debate analysis, I mentioned three things Obama would have to do in this debate: bring his passion, draw a strong contrast, and avoid burying his most important messages. He did all three.
The score is now 1-1. Next Monday’s debate will break the tie.
President Obama: A-
Mitt Romney: C+
Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this story first appeared. Follow him on Twitter @MrMediaTraining.