Who won? American people lost

Posted: October 05, 2012

IT WAS A BAD NIGHT for a slightly-above-comatose President Obama and befuddled debate moderator Jim Lehrer, and a good night for a caffeinated Mitt Romney, but the biggest loser of the first presidential debate in Denver on Wednesday night was clear: The American people.

A deeply divided electorate that craved simple and direct talk on how the 2012 White House rivals will help create jobs or reform health care instead got long, rambling and sometimes hard-to-follow riffs that did, at times, show stark differences between the candidates on issues from taxes to Medicare but lacked kitchen-table directness.

For all the talk of "zingers," there were no knockouts and no lines that rose to the level of a "you're no Jack Kennedy." Instead, most pundits were quick to award Romney a victory on points, largely on his body language. While the former Massachusetts governor was relentlessly upbeat and engaged, the president looked disengaged and even sleepy at times, sometimes looking down at the podium.

Loser of the night: Moderator Lehrer, and a botched debate format. The retired PBS anchor lost control of the proceedings minutes into the debate, failing to stop either candidate from long, rambling answers and failing to get the candidates to engage each other. By night's end, a "Silent Jim Lehrer" had emerged on Twitter and was gaining followers.

Romney fib/fumble of the night: The Republican's muddled responses on how his $5 trillion tax-cutting plan wasn't really a tax cut, a claim that baffled most fact-checkers. "I'm not in favor of a five-trillion tax cut, but that's not my plan," he said at one point, then came back and defended cutting taxes for the wealthy.

Obama fib/fumble of the night: He continues to insist that he can reduce the deficit by ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but those wars were never paid for in the first place.

Missed Obama opportunity of the night: Failing to bring up Romney's secretly videotaped riff in "the 47 percent" - the episode that was so devastating to the Republican's campaign last month - during a lengthy back-and-forth on taxes for high-income Americans.

Most awkward Romney line of the night: Trying to prove his budget-cutting bona fides, Romney said that he would cut problems like the Public Broadcasting System, then looked at PBS retiree Lehrer and quickly added: "I love Big Bird! I actually like you, too."

Other things that Romney loves: "I love coal!" he exclaimed during a discussion of energy policy, all but guaranteeing an electoral-college victory in the presidential election of 1896.

Most awkward Obama line of the night: "Under Governor Romney's definition, Donald Trump is a small business. I know Donald Trump doesn't like to think of himself as small anything," he added, to deafening silence.

Runner-up: Obama's strange embrace of the term "Obamacare," the moniker that conservatives used so successfully to bring down public support for a national health-care system, once backed by a majority.

Missing in action: Climate change, alternative energy, defense cuts as a tool to close the budget gap.

Most predictable moment: Obama starting the debate by wishing a happy 20th anniversary - Wednesday - to his "sweetie," his wife, Michelle. He added: "A year from now, we won't be celebrating it in front of 40 million people." True. After Wednesday night, they may be celebrating it in Chicago.

Best tweets: "Jim Lehrer has lost control. He's like a replacement ref." - @tbogg (liberal blogger TBogg)

"To be clear: I like coal and I don't like Spain." - @lizzwinstead (Comedienne Lizz Winstead)

"This is like watching a tax law professor debate an investment advice infomercial host." - @daveweigel (Slate writer and MSNBC pundit)

Contact Will Bunch at bunchw@phillynews.com or 215-854-2957. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog at Attytood.com.

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