Jacob Heilbrunn

The Debate: Let Romney Be Romney

All of Barack Obama's worst traits manifested themselves during last night's debate. He was pedantic, professorial and detached. He conveyed the sense that he's too bored by Mitt Romney even to deign to battle him. Romney was auditioning for the job, Obama merely went through the motions. For conservatives who have been bashing Romney for not being right-wing enough, the message seems clear: let Romney be Romney. Which is to say allow him to pound away at Obama, while blurring his own conservative stands.

It was astounding to see how listless Obama appeared even as Romney hammered away with facts and figures, however dubious, that gave the impression that he was in full command. Obama could barely rouse himself to defend Obamacare, failing to counter Romney's claim that he had devoted the first years in office to health care rather than jobs. Once again Obama reverted to form: he only starts battling when his back is up against the wall.

So Romney's performance may have a perverse effect. It may jolt Obama out of his somnolence and prompt him to take Romney more seriously. But the bottom line for Romney is pellucidly clear: the best defense is a good offense. He needs to pound away relentlessly at Obama's record, while blurring his own, which is what he did last night. The fact is that Romney waffled on many of his core stances such as lowering taxes, which was the prudent tack to take. He should adopt it next in foreign affairs, jettisoning the neocon bluster about attacking Iran. He's got plenty of fodder to attack the president about when it comes to the Middle East and elsewhere.

Romney will have another advantage. For all the bellyaching among conservatives about the mainstream media being on the side of Obama, it ain't true. The media wants a real race to maintain interest in news coverage. Romney provided it. A flurry of stories will appear this week reassessing Romney, explaining why he's more likable than he's seemed and why he may have the grit and determination and gumption to turn around America. If Romney does win the presidency, he will be in a powerful position since he will have won it despite the grumbling of much of the Republican party. He will be in a position to say that he won it on his own terms.

To think that it's clear sailing for Romney, however, would be delusional. As James Rainey reminds us in the Los Angeles Times, John Kerry blew George W. Bush out of the water in the first 2004 debate:

President George W. Bush became an object of scorn and near-pity eight years ago for some voters watching his first debate with Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.

Sitting amid a group of 100 swing voters who assembled to watch the debate at a college auditorium in Pennsylvania, I heard some laugh. Others shook their heads in dismay, as the president smirked or stammered and groped for words—particularly as he tried to defend the troublesome war in Iraq.

The crowd had been given portable dial-rating devices to instantly register their feelings about the two presidential contenders. On almost every question, the crowd dialed the more articulate and decisive Kerry as “very good” or close to it. They rated Bush around average, sometimes lower.

So don't be fooled. The presidential race isn't over. It may just have gotten started. But for Romney, who has been lagging in the polls and remains a distinct underdog, that's the good news.

Image: Gage Skidmore