Making Sense of the Debate -- 6 Takes

Brian Resnick

The consensus on first presidential debate was exceedingly clear: President Obama’s answers were stilted and lackluster, Mitt Romney owned the stage, and Jim Lehrer (who was cut off 30 times by the candidates) mainly just sat back and watched. And there were some notable distractions, such as Romney's Big Bird shout-out, which quickly spurred irreverent internet memes.

But now that the dust has settled, and the candidates are back campaigning, what are we to make of the first debate? Was it a game changer as the Romney camp might hope, or, just a soon-to-be-forgotten blip in the news cycle?

Below, National Journal writers put the debate in perspective.

President Obama and the Curse of the Incumbent

Incumbents often stumble in the first debate of a reelection cycle, NJ editor-in-chief Ron Fournier explains. Why? Presidents command a high degree of respect in office, and aren't often criticized face-to-face.

Call it the curse of incumbency. Like many of his predecessors, President Obama fell victim Wednesday night to high expectations, a short fuse, and a hungry challenger.

If Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney didn't win the first of three presidential debates outright, he more than covered the spread. He was personable, funny, and relentlessly on the attack against a heavily favored Obama.

The president looked peeved and flat as he carried a conversation, for the first time in four years, with somebody telling him he’s wrong.

Mitt Breaks Losing Streak

Charlie Cook isn’t swayed by instant debate analysis; he looks to the numbers. While he says a Romney rebound is possible, the polls suggest the GOP candidate will need to gain even greater momentum.

Too many political observers see politics in an entirely binary way: Everything has to be either a “0” or a “1”; a race is either tied or it’s over; every election is either won or stolen. Some people never want to admit that their side lost. And some people think that a poll either tells them what they want to hear or is methodologically flawed—or crooked. It’s like an obnoxious sports fan (often found in Philadelphia) who views a ruling by a referee or umpire as either favorable or a bad call. Denial and simplicity reign.

.... It would take a very consequential event to change the trajectory of this race. Time will tell whether Romney’s strong debate performance on Wednesday night was the event that he needed—particularly in swing states such as Ohio. But at least he energized his supporters and sent a clear message that the race is not over.

Romney Makes a Leap Toward the Center

Romney displayed a change of tactics on Wednesday night, writes chief correspondent Michael Hirsh. He played to the center, highlighting his experience as a GOP governor in a blue state. But instead of labeling Romney as a flip-flopper, Obama let his opponent change the narrative. Hirsh says Obama “was too subtle, too civilized” in his counter.

If he wants to win, Obama can’t stop doing what his campaign has done so effectively: hammering away at the issue that has dogged the GOP candidate for so long. Which Romney is the country likely to get? Is it the pragmatist from Massachusetts, or the party panderer? Asked by moderator Jim Lehrer to give “the argument against repeal” of "Obamacare," the president could have attacked Romney’s flight from his own plan in Massachusetts. Instead, Obama dove back into his own private wonkland, apparently infatuated with the details of all he thinks he’s achieved in three years: “We’re essentially setting up a group plan that allows you to benefit from group rates that are typically 18 percent lower … ”

Romney's New Test: Sustain the Momentum

Romney has stepped on his own progress before, correspondent Beth Reinhard writes. To keep his momentum headed toward the White House, he can't make any more big mistakes going forward.

Time and time again over the course of this campaign, Romney has surged only to step on his own momentum. And with 33 days before Election Day and early voting well under way, Romney has got to massage a solid debate performance into a winning streak.

“There’s zero room for error because he’s already behind,” said Patrick Davis, a Colorado-based Republican strategist. “It could be the end of the Barack Obama momentum or the beginning of Romney momentum.”

Not So Fast: Don’t Write Off Obama

Reporters are always hungry for a change in the election narrative, so many were bound to label Wednesday night the beginning of the end for Obama. Not so fast, Ron Fournier reminds us. There are two more debates, the electoral map still favors the president, and anything can happen.

Take a breath, Washington. That was my lede on Sept. 18, when polls showed Obama opening a lead, GOP strategists criticized their nominee, and Romney's advisers turned against one another. Now, as predictable as a sunrise in the east, the narrative is poised to shift after Romney thumped Obama on style points in their first debate. …

Obama will learn from his mistakes. He let Romney go unchallenged on Wednesday night as the GOP nominee distorted his own policies and injected some new ones into the campaign. Strategists close to Obama predicted hours after the debate that the president will be more aggressive in the next encounter.

Unemployment Numbers May (or May Not) Overshadow Debate

After Obama's poor performance Wednesday night, the jobs report on Friday could have added insult to injury. Instead, the jobless rate fell to 7.8 percent, the lowest number since 2009. While this good news may subdue Romney's post-debate momentum, it won't necessarily be a boost for Obama, Catherine Hollander and Niraj Chokshi write.

The overall impact of Friday’s report on the presidential race is going to be small, political analysts said. Voters tend to consider economic trends rather than one or two data points just before the election. In fact, those numbers could be among the least significant of the 2012 campaign. David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft Research, found that late-breaking numbers have diminishing returns for incumbents. “It’s first- and second-quarter changes that really make a difference.... At this point, it’s very hard to shape that narrative,” he said.