The early consensus is that Romney’s performance in tonight’s debate was much more effective than Obama’s. Obama was generally listless, unfocused, and uninspired in the delivery of his remarks. If Obama’s supporters expected him to wipe the floor with Romney, they were sorely disappointed, which I think informed a lot of the reactions on the Democratic side. As far as Democrats were concerned, Romney had become such a wounded, joke candidate that he was almost fated to lose the debate no matter what he said. Because most Democrats underestimated Romney, there was a certain amount of shock in how well he was able to perform. Romney was extremely capable in rattling off figures in his answers and rebuttals, and he mostly avoided being pinned down on the details of many of his own proposals. He ran away from most of his and Ryan’s ideas during the debate, and he talked up the virtues of the Massachusetts health care law. Even though it made Romney’s overall position hopelessly muddled, these were probably smart political maneuvers.
If a viewer didn’t trust Romney coming into the debate, he said nothing to change that, but he didn’t make any major errors that can be used against him later. He is an unlikable candidate, and more people will still view him that way, but he didn’t make things any worse for himself. Assuming they were watching, tentative Obama supporters must have been dispirited by the poor showing their candidate gave, but there was absolutely nothing in the debate that would have made someone inclined to vote for Obama to switch to his opponent. Romney was successful insofar as he minimized disagreements with his opponent, which was an implicit admission that a sharp ideological contrast isn’t going to be help him win the election.
Romney was able to hold forth at length on his views partly because Jim Lehrer was completely useless in reining in the candidates. Romney took full advantage of this, and Obama didn’t. Judging by the standards I mentioned this morning, Romney did most of what he needed to do, but it was likely not enough to lower his high unfavorability rating. Romney came across as competent enough, but as usual he also came across as insufferably smug. Considering how important the debate was for Romney, he did as well as he possibly could have hoped, and that will be reflected in the coverage of the debate tonight and tomorrow.