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Five Takeaways From The First Presidential Debate

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama talk after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Wednesday.
Charlie Neibergall
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama talk after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Wednesday.

Mitt Romney may have given his campaign something of a reset with his performance in the first debate against President Obama.

He appeared more comfortable on stage than the incumbent, and was able at least to lay the groundwork for a message of bipartisanship that could appeal to remaining undecided voters.

Of course, it's not clear yet whether the debate will create enough momentum to offer Romney an advantage heading into the next debate, let alone through Election Day. Perhaps some of the inevitable post-debate fact checking will challenge Romney's credence on certain points.

But it's notable that Obama failed to do much of that himself, launching far fewer attacks during the debate than his aggressive campaign advertising strategy suggested he might.

Here's a quick review of five takeaways from the first debate in Denver:

Obama Looked Tired And Sounded Defensive

Obama's advisers noted before the debate that the president was having a hard time finding much unbroken debate practice time, and much of what he did have was devoted to boiling down his positions to fit the time limits. All of this showed.

Romney looked straight at his opponent, often wearing a confident Mona Lisa grin. Obama looked down at his notes or over at the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, only occasionally looking directly into the camera.

Aside from his body language, some of Obama's answers came across as wonky. Both men offered laundry lists of their ideas, but Obama failed to craft a compelling case for his own record or second-term agenda, instead repeating complaints that he had inherited a mess.

What's more, he failed to go after Romney aggressively. There was no mention of Bain Capital or Romney's dismissive videotaped comments about the "47 percent" of Americans who are dependent on government.

Only in the last 20 minutes of the 90-minute debate did Obama land much of a blow, complaining that Romney was keeping the specifics about his tax plans and his approaches to health care and banking regulation too much a secret.

Romney Grasped The Mantle Of Bipartisanship

Romney said he didn't want to lay out anything other than broad principles during the campaign, because he found out as Massachusetts governor that a "my way or the highway" approach doesn't win over legislators.

Even before Lehrer had made "partisan gridlock" the subject of his final question, Romney stressed the importance of bipartisanship. He said that something as important as the federal health care law should have been passed on a bipartisan basis (it received essentially no GOP support) and paid homage to the working relationship of Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill in the 1980s.

"I had the great experience — it didn't seem like it at the time — of being elected in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat," Romney said, "and that meant I figured out from day one I had to get along and I had to work across the aisle to get anything done."

Given consistent Republican opposition to Obama in Congress — some have called it obstructionism — no doubt Democrats will question the sincerity of Romney's embrace of bipartisanship. But it's a message that could be welcomed by voters, particularly centrist independents.

You're A Drinking Game Winner If You're Middle Class

Both candidates were at pains to pay tribute to members of the middle class, again and again. Each referred to specific members of the middle class they had met along the campaign trail, who had gone back to school or were now out of work. Each insisted his plan would do more to help such people out and create middle-class jobs.

Obama argued that Romney's plans to cut taxes and increase military spending would necessarily cause the deficit to balloon or "burden" the middle class, because there would not be sufficient savings available to offset their cost by ending deductions or closing loopholes.

Romney insisted that his tax-cut plan would impose no such hardship. "I will not, under any circumstances, raise taxes on middle-income families," he said.

When Candidates Have The Microphone, They'll Keep Talking

Romney sought to refute a study Obama had cited to show his tax package would hurt the middle class was wrong: "There are six other studies that looked at the study you describe and say it's completely wrong," Romney said.

Many of the candidate's responses were like that: Sometimes arcane, often straying from the original question that Lehrer had asked. At one point, Romney used an education question to repeat a charge that Obama had squandered billions on unsuccessful green-energy programs.

Nearly all politicians use debate questions merely as jumping-off points, concerning themselves with highlighting policies they deem most important. Both men did that Wednesday, ignoring Lehrer's frequent invitations to confront or question their opponent directly, in favor of rattling off other arguments of their own.

Partly as a result, the debate's intended format, of 15-minute segments each covering six different topics, was broken almost immediately, leaving only three minutes for the final segment.

Lehrer struggled unsuccessfully to cut off the two candidates and redirect them to the supposed topic at hand. A stammering Twitter handle called @SilentJimLehrer went up during the debate, quickly attracting thousands of followers.

Democrats Will Want To Retool For Future Debates

For all his oratorical gifts, Obama has sometimes struggled in debates. He was often out-mastered during the long series of debates during the Democratic primary season in 2008 and hasn't had much practice since then — except for his debates against Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been nearly salivating for months at the prospect of the vice presidential debate, which takes place on Oct. 11. They believe Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has the intellectual and rhetorical firepower to wipe the floor with Vice President Joe Biden.

That may prove to be wishful thinking. Ryan has put many of his own ideas on ice while serving as the loyal No. 2, while Biden is deeply versed in both domestic and foreign policy.

But Obama's lackluster performance — coupled with Biden's remark Tuesday that "the middle class ...has been buried the last four years" — will leave GOP partisans giddy with anticipation of next Thursday's debate.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.