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First Thoughts: Romney helps himself

Romney helped himself last night, while Obama didn’t… It was a substantive and civil debate (especially compared with those Brown-vs.-Warren slugfests)… How Obama could win the post-debate -- by seizing on several of the openings Romney gave him last night… NBC’s John Yang interviews undecided Ohio voters who watched the debate… Romney unveils new TV ad… And Obama stumps in Denver, CO and Madison, WI, while Romney hits Fisherville, VA.

In a fiercely substantive first debate, Mitt Romney performed as if his campaign may have depended on it while a surprisingly subdued President Obama seemed to allow his challenger to dictate the terms of the discussion. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Romney helps himself: Eight years ago, a politician from Massachusetts was able to use his first debate against a sitting president to make a strong impression in a race he was trailing. And history repeated itself last night. If Mitt Romney's goal of the first debate was to get at least a second look from voters, then he succeeded -- big time. He was energetic, concise, and even funny. He also came across as knowledgeable, especially to those who might have been tuning in for the first time. The  insta-polls   showed that Romney won the debate decisively, and it's hard to disagree. Bottom line: Romney helped himself, and that has to hearten his campaign, his donors, and the entire Republican Party running down the ticket. As we saw in January (after he lost the South Carolina primary) and in February (as Rick Santorum threatened him in Michigan), Romney delivers in a debate when he needs a good performance.   Politico   summed up things pretty well for what Romney accomplished last night: “At a minimum, Romney’s performance has chased away the aroma of terminal illness that was starting to emanate from his campaign and the increasingly restive factions in and around his operation... Whether he gets more than this minimum payoff is far from certain, given the deficit he was facing in both national polls and, more troublingly, several must-win swing states.”

Slideshow: On the campaign trail

***  And Obama doesn’t : By comparison, President Obama -- like George W. Bush before him back in  2004 (and even Ronald Reagan in ‘84 and George H.W. Bush in ’92) -- wasn't on his game and seemed a bit annoyed at sharing the same stage with his challenger. If Romney was energetic and concise, then Obama was listless and rambling. This was more the Obama who debated in Orangeburg, SC in April 2007 than the Obama who bested  John McCain in the general-election debates of 2008. And now the pressure is on Vice President Biden to do what Dick Cheney did against John Edwards in’04: come back with a decisive win. Indeed, what the Obama campaign faces is akin to a baseball team who loses the  first playoff game with its ace, and now needs its somewhat inconsistent No. 2 pitcher to step up. No doubt, Team Obama wishes they weren’t putting this all on Biden to deliver, but they only have the principal himself to blame.

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012.


***  A substantive and civil debate: Yet if the debate will be remembered for anything -- especially if the poll numbers don’t move much -- it will be for its substance. Fact-checking aside (and will get into that below), last night’s showdown was the most policy-oriented debate we’ve seen in the television era. And as our colleague Vaughn Ververs points out, it was also striking for its civility. No doubt the candidates disagreed on a whole host of issues, but they did so in a civil way, and that was pretty refreshing in this hyper-partisan atmosphere. (For a comparison, just see the recent Scott Brown-vs.-Elizabeth Warren debates.). And, by the way, no one needed to come across civil and likeable more than Romney.

*** Who wins the post-debate? If Romney won the instant reactions from last night’s debate, it is more than possible that the Obama camp can win the next 24 hours. Why? Because Romney said several things that could make life difficult for him today or in the next debate. First, Romney declared, “I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.” But in addition to supporting the extension of the Bush tax cuts, which are skewed heavily to the wealthy, the non-partisan Tax Policy Center says that Romney’s tax plan would give the Top 0.1% an average tax cut of more than $246,000. Next, he stated that “there will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit.” While he has said his plan will be paid for, he’s yet to lay out any SPECIFICS on how he’ll pay for it. Romney also said, “I'm not going to cut education funding. I don't have any plan to cut education funding.” But the Ryan budget plan, which Romney has said he’d sign into law, leads to long-term spending reductions in education. And Romney also didn’t disagree with the description that his Medicare plan would consist of “vouchers” for future retirees. Winning a “debate” is always a two-part deal -- the night itself, and then the aftermath. This is now an opportunity for Team Obama and a challenge for Team Romney.

*** Watching the debate in Ohio: NBC’s John Yang watched the debate with six undecided voters in Ohio. As Yang writes, “Most of them—like most voters—have not been closely following the campaign, and this was their first close look at Romney, other than from the TV ads blanketing the airwaves. In this introduction, he favorably impressed at least two of our voters who backed Obama in 2008. These two said Romney came across as better than the out-of-touch millionaire they’d heard about.” More Yang: “Despite the flurry of statistics in the debate, all of our voters still said they wanted to hear more specifics. One ’08 McCain voter said he heard more specifics from Obama and is still waiting to hear some from Romney. Two of our voters—both 2008 Obama voters—said the President came across as ‘arrogant’—though one voter said that was a good thing because she wants that in a leader.”

*** Romney’s new TV and upcoming foreign-policy speech: The day after the debate, Romney has a new TV ad proclaiming that he’ll create 12 million new jobs (however, that 12 million figure is already the estimate for what’s supposed to happen in the next four years, no matter who’s in the White House). NBC also has confirmed thatRomney will deliver a foreign-policy speech in Virginia on Monday.

*** On the trail: Obama holds a campaign rally in Denver, CO at 12:20 pm ET, and then heads to Madison, WI at 4:20 pm ET… Romney and Ryan campaign in Fisherville, VA at 6:45 pm ET… Biden hits Council Bluffs, IA… And the DNC has a bus tour through Ohio, which has begun its early voting.

Countdown to VP debate: 7 days
Countdown to 2
nd presidential debate: 12 days
Countdown to 3
rd presidential debate: 18 days
Countdown to Election Day: 33 days

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