You only needed to look at the faces of MSNBC’s pundits or Democratic officials in the spin room to know what everyone professionally involved in politics believes — Mitt Romney won big in this first debate. We’ll see how the public digests it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the polls draw close in the next week and that thereafter this race — as was always likely — goes down to the wire.
I’ll let others assess in detail Romney’s assertive presence and demeanor, and the obvious toll it took on the president, who, in split screen shots when he wasn’t speaking, often looked irked or working a bit to suppress frustration or anger.
What interests me most is Mitt’s audacity. Wednesday night at long last came the full-throated return of the Rockefeller Republican many suspect is Romney’s true political nature, if indeed he has one. With one fatal exception I’ll note in a moment, on taxes, health care, education, regulation and more, Romney came across as deeply informed, experienced and reasonable, and as a powerful and articulate critic of the economy’s weaknesses on Obama’s watch.
Romney’s macro theory of the race has always been that in a time of high unemployment and economic anxiety, being a credible alternative would suffice. Until tonight, the polls suggested that strategy was falling short. Now, it looks much more plausible, especially when combined with the iron political law that every presidential campaign eventually obeys: Do what you have to do to get the nomination, and then appeal to the center once its locked up. I expected Mitt to turn to the middle right after he became the de facto nominee, or at least at the convention, and not wait until now. If he wins, of course, Romney and his advisers will be hailed as geniuses for their timing, for bonding the party faithful to the ticket with the choice of Paul Ryan and a conservative-themed convention, and then dashing to the center for the home stretch.