The first United States presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Gov. Mitt Romney was held last Wednesday in Denver, Colorado. By all accounts, Mr. Romney prevailed, setting the tempo for the debate and making the president look listless and defensive in comparison. The GOP challenger, while dominating the debate, was also much more moderate than the candidate that had been running up to that point.
This new “Moderate Mitt” should appeal to the undecided voters who may well decide the November ballot. Two big questions remain: Will voters believe that this is the real Romney, and will a more centrist candidate alienate the Republican base?
Prior to the debate, Mr. Romney was running behind Mr. Obama. Most polls had the president ahead by as much as 5 percent (although some showed the race a dead heat).
Republican Party strategists and pundits were demanding that their candidate change course, most of them wanting Mr. Romney to charge hard to the right and sharpen as much as possible the differences between him and Mr. Obama.
Mr. Romney did not take that advice. Instead, in a move that recalls the “etch a sketch” comment of one of his advisers during the primary campaign, the GOP candidate on the stage in Denver was a much more moderate, middle-of-the-road Republican, one who seemed at pains to emphasize his points of agreement with the president.
Discussing taxes, Mr. Romney said he would not give a net tax break to upper-income Americans, a charge that Mr. Obama has leveled against the Republican nominee. Mr. Obama insists that Mr. Romney wants to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class by giving tax cuts to the wealthy while cutting services for everyone else. Mr. Romney allowed that tax breaks for oil companies are “on the table” for discussion when trying to balance the government books.
Turning to the role of government, Mr. Romney practically committed heresy by conceding that regulations are essential to a properly functioning market. It is GOP orthodoxy that the best government is one that gets out of the way and lets free enterprise and market entrepreneurs work their magic.
Mr. Romney vowed to protect Medicare, another Republic bugaboo, and even pronounced himself proud of his health care plan, the model for the program passed by Mr. Obama and roundly dismissed by conservatives as “Obamacare.”
This move to the center was predictable. In primaries, candidates must appeal to “the base” — hardcore supporters who want “red meat” positions that eschew nuance.
After sewing up the nomination, candidates must then tack back to the middle to appeal to the moderates who are undecided and whose votes truly decide presidential elections.
What was remarkable about Mr. Romney was his continued adherence to the more extreme positions of the GOP base after he wrapped up the nomination, and the pressure by the chattering classes for him to continue doing so even as the election neared.
“Moderate Mitt” has a much wider appeal than the fire breather of the campaign season who blithely dismissed the very idea of appealing to “the 47 percent” of voters who rely on the government and who thus back Mr. Obama (at least that is how Mr. Romney characterized them in video footage from a campaign speech earlier this year).
But as well as Mr. Romney performed on Oct. 3, Mr. Obama was dull and lackluster. Some speculate that he was surprised by the shifts in Mr. Romney’s position and was reluctant to call him out on those changes as well as misstatements that he made. Fact checkers noted (and even Mr. Romney’s staff conceded) that several of his comments were inaccurate.
Others blame the president’s failure to meet the press more often during his four years of office and as a result he was rusty and unprepared for a head to head debate.
Whatever the explanation, Mr. Romney emerged from the debate rejuvenated and GOP hopes soared after weeks of consistently bad news. But much of that enthusiasm dissipated in the wake of a jobs report released last Friday that showed the U.S. economy added 114,000 jobs in September, pushing down the unemployment rate from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent, the first time since Mr. Obama took office in January 2009 that the jobless rate has been below 8 percent.
If most voters vote their wallets, an economic revival is just what Mr. Obama needs to maintain his lead despite the Romney resurgence.
The real issue is whether Mr. Romney’s tack to the center will cost him votes on the right.
If conservative animus toward the president is so strong that they just want to see him out of the White House, then Mr. Romney has carte blanche to navigate to the center to appeal to moderates.
There is a risk, however, that those conservatives may believe that “Moderate Mitt” is the real Mitt Romney and that the move to the center is not a tactical maneuver but a revealing of the candidate’s instincts. If that happens, then the base may abandon Mr. Romney, preferring to sit out the election rather than endorse a “RINO” — a Republican In Name Only.
Equally important is Mr. Obama’s response to the debate. He came out swinging in campaign appearances after the debate, and advisers said they will adjust their strategy to compensate for flaws evident in the debate. In 2008, Mr. Obama was forced to make similar adjustments; they worked.
The outcome of the November ballot remains unclear, but it looks like the race remains Mr. Obama’s to lose.