When during the past few weeks people favorable to Mitt Romney have said it all comes down to him, it’s usually been with a sense of foreboding.
During the first debate, though, Romney had his best moment of the campaign when it all depended on him.
He stood on the stage with the president of the United States and not only won on substance, but won on optics, demeanor and emotion. He flat-out won.
Romney showed a few key things in an unfiltered format much more persuasive than any 30-second ad: He’s up to the job, he’s not a monster, and his program makes a lot of sense. In media fact-check terms, his performance represented a “mostly false” rating on the case against him.
Romney had an answer for everything the president said, partly because the president relied on tired riffs from the campaign trail that don’t sound nearly as good without an adoring audience looking for any excuse to laugh or applaud. It’s hard to imagine a better point-by-point argument than Romney made throughout the debate, when he seemed less a former management consultant than a former litigator.
It’s not often a president of the United States has someone stand several yards away, look directly at him and contradict everything he says. It can’t be a pleasant experience. But all President Barack Obama could do was grimace and take it.
At times, he seemed to fear confrontation with Romney. “The president is at liberty,” Woodrow Wilson said, “both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can.” Obama looked small. Someone who knew absolutely nothing going in — a pretty good definition of an undecided voter, unfortunately — might have guessed that Romney was the incumbent president.
The debate played to a few of his natural strengths. One, he has seemed confident and presidential almost from the day he stepped on the natural stage six years ago. Two, what was often said of Barack Obama in 2008, that he had a “first-class temperament,” definitely applies to Romney. He’s cheerful and unflappable to a fault. Three, he has no problem expressing himself.
On the other hand, his shortcomings as a candidate — particularly evident during the past couple of months — are that he has trouble connecting, he relies too much on substanceless biography, and he lacks passion. Not from the debate stage in Denver.
On connecting, he resorted to the obvious but effective expedient of talking about the struggles of real people he has met on the campaign trail. This might not have worked so well if it didn’t contrast so starkly with the bloodlessness of the president, who was as engaging as the safely tenured professor who knows he doesn’t need to bother wowing his students anymore.
On substance, Romney had an absolute command of details and connected them back to the goals of his program — a thriving economy and middle class.
On passion, say whatever else you will about Mitt Romney, but he sincerely believes he can do this job. And the most important issue facing the country — Can its economy and government be put on a more efficient footing conducive to economic growth? — is in his wheelhouse. All that came through.
This matchup was reminiscent of Romney’s must-win debates with Newt Gingrich before the Florida primary. Like the former speaker, Obama got run over by a Mitt Romney who was better prepared and determined to deconstruct his opponent. The Florida debates were the end for Gingrich, who was out of resources and out of time.
Not so the president, obviously. Romney’s 47 percent remark is still out there, even if it bizarrely didn’t come up during the debate. The Romney-Ryan Medicare reform is still a heavy lift. Obama will continue to benefit from a Bush overhang. But at least in the debates, it is now clear that the Romney campaign has an underappreciated asset — none other than Mitt Romney himself.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@)nationalreview.com.