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Frontal Assault

Mitt Holds His Own

Romney turns in a more energetic performance than the president but spends more time playing defense. Howard Kurtz on the wonkfest in Denver.

DENVER—Barack Obama and Mitt Romney forcefully clashed over their contrasting economic views in their first debate Wednesday night, with the challenger displaying more energy and crispness than the languid and long-winded president.


Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

It was a serious, respectful, somewhat wonky debate, notably devoid of zingers or dramatic moments, with Obama consistently more aggressive in challenging his opponent over his proposed tax cuts and slashes in domestic spending.

Stylistically, Romney came on strong, showing a confident command of facts and figures even as he tried to moderate or distance himself from some of his proposals. He also made direct eye contact with the camera while Obama often seemed to be looking down, never adjusting his intensity and acting like he was at a garden-variety news conference.

Veteran analyst says GOP may soon panic over Romney

When I asked Charlie Cook whether the media were being too quick to assume that Barack Obama will win a second term, he said no.

Losing the election, he told me in a video interview, “will require a massive screwup by President Obama or some international event that just shakes everything up.” You can’t accuse the guy of mincing words.

‘Howard Kurtz sits down with Charlie Cook to discuss Obama’s chances.’

“Romney’s got a week to turn this thing around,” the veteran political analyst told me. Otherwise “Republicans going to hit the panic button” and start pouring their money into saving congressional seats.

Debate Dilemma

Mitt Romney and the Warmth Factor

Conflicting advice before the big debate

 Mitt Romney’s head must be spinning.

 Everyone is deluging him with advice about Wednesday’s debate: Be aggressive but not too aggressive, be bold but reassuring, be specific but don’t get in the weeds, and have a ready supply of zingers.

 Which is why I was struck by this passage in National Revview: “Romney’s advisers have a simple strategy: They want their candidate to balance his finely tuned arguments with personal warmth.”

  Oh, now he has to feel people’s pain, too?


David Brooks, Riling Up the Right

When the Romney critic takes on Obama, the president calls

For a conservative commentator, David Brooks gets plenty of flak from the right. And he doesn’t much care.

“If it’s from a loon, I don’t mind it,” the New York Times columnist tells me in a video interview. “I get a kick out of it. If it’s from Michelle Malkin attacking, I don’t mind it.” But if it’s “people who are thoughtful,” including some former colleagues at the Weekly Standard, “then it bothers you.”

Even worse, says Brooks: “I don’t mind liberals praising me, but when it’s the really partisan liberals, you get an avalanche of love, it’s like uhhh, I gotta rethink this.”


Punch Sulzberger’s Legacy

He battled the Nixon administration and turned the company into a journalistic powerhouse. Howard Kurtz on how “Punch” rescued The New York Times.

It is probably not much of an overstatement to say that Arthur Ochs Sulzberger saved The New York Times.

New York Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger

New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger in his office in New York on July 20, 1977. (Ray Howard / AP Photo)

Sulzberger, who died Saturday at 86, was a behind-the-scenes eminence who quietly guided the nation’s premiere newspaper through a turbulent period. He was a throwback to an earlier era, when men—they were almost always men—treated a newspaper as a public trust (which is, of course, easier to do when your family controls the voting stock).

But in a 34-year career as Times publisher and as CEO and chairman of The New York Times Co., the man known as Punch diversified the operation in a way that guaranteed its future. His son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is the current publisher and chairman.

Subject Change

Mitt’s Surprise Tax Dump

After resisting for months, Romney puts out returns showing he did indeed pay federal taxes last year. Howard Kurtz on why the move makes political sense.

Things have gotten so bad for Mitt Romney that abruptly releasing his tax returns must seem like a welcome respite.

Romney Taxes Campaign

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. (Charles Dharapak / AP Photo)

Battered by criticism of his “47 percent” video, dropping in the polls and battling a general sense that the election is slipping away, the Republican nominee is choosing to return to an issue on which Democrats have been hammering him for months.

That’s right, talking about his tens of millions of dollars in investment income, and a lower tax rate than some workers pay, now constitutes a positive development for Romney—because it enables him to change the subject.

McCain Strategist

Romney Faces ‘Character Test’

The nominee’s ‘very bad run,’ stretching back to the convention ‘moment of the empty chair,’ is mostly self-inflicted, says GOP veteran Steve Schmidt. The McCain strategist tells Howard Kurtz how Romney can revive his struggling campaign.

Steve Schmidt knows something about trying to steer a presidential campaign out of the ditch when much of the world is saying the wheels have come off.


Mitt Romney, Steve Schmidt. (Getty Images (2))

In Schmidt’s case, helping to draft Sarah Palin to push John McCain over the finish line led to years of regret, as well as an unexpected measure of fame when he was sympathetically portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Game Change. So I thought Schmidt, having lost the 2008 contest to Barack Obama, would have a singular vantage point on the current Republican nominee’s mounting woes.

“When you’re inside a presidential campaign, it’s always important to keep perspective that the race is fundamentally a character test,” he tells me on a scratchy cell phone while driving through the mountains of Northern California. “Mitt Romney is being tested right now.”

Jimmy Carter's grandson was go-between for tape of Romney's remarks

Howard Kurtz talks with David Corn about Mitt Romney's 47% comment.

David Corn, the liberal journalist who obtained the videotape of Mitt Romney’s damaging remarks at a closed-door fundraiser, says the unnamed source is a fan of his work.

“He’s told me he read my books and he was familiar with the earlier Bain stories that I had done, which were investigative, and he was impressed by that,” the Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones told me in a video interview. Corn is the author of such books as The Lies of George W. Bush.

Pressed about the source’s motivation, Corn, who is also an MSNBC commentator, says: “My guess is—I haven’t asked—is that he’s left of center.” Romney’s comments, that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government, have an entitlement mentality and that he views them as victims—have erupted into the middle of the presidential campaign.

Jeffrey Goldberg on how the media spun a false narrative after the anti-American riots

Jeffrey Goldberg, one of America’s most influential writers on the Middle East, reduced the initial reporting on the anti-Islam film that has angered many of that faith to a Twitter-length headline:

“A group of Christians, smearing Muslims, libels Jews.”

And he blames the media.


Team Obama Sees Gain in Crisis

Mitt Romney paints the administration as weak, while the president’s side says the Mideast attacks reveal their rival as unsteady. Why there are risks to both strategies.

President Obama’s strategists are convinced that the overseas attacks on U.S. diplomats are a major break for his campaign—as long as they are not viewed as politicizing the crisis.



They are leaving the criticism of Mitt Romney’s late-night slam against the administration, before the deaths of four Americans in Libya were confirmed, to high-profile surrogates.

“I got the feeling that Romney didn’t have the facts and didn’t focus on the gravity of what he was saying,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said in an interview. “He just took a political shot without knowing what was going on.” Obama, says Albright, “knows how to deal with a crisis. I have a sense that Governor Romney doesn’t.”


Katie, America’s New Girlfriend

The ex-anchor dished about dating and weight loss with Sheryl Crow and Jessica Simpson in her daytime debut Monday. Howard Kurtz on whether Couric can make it in syndication.

Katie Couric got off to a bang-up start on her new daytime show by focusing on one of America’s favorite topics: herself.

Unfortunately, she then moved on to Jessica Simpson.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Jessica Simpson. But it came off as a typical celebrity interview.

Couric returned to the small screen Monday with a little help from a 'Today' friend.


Rahm on the Offensive

The Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff vows to attack the gang warfare that has helped spike his city’s murder rate 15 percent, and push through education reform despite a threatened teachers’ strike.

When it comes to his city, Rahm Emanuel should be on the defensive.

The homicide rate in Chicago is up 15 percent. The teachers’ union is threatening a strike that would be crippling. But the mayor knows that, politically speaking, the best defense is a good offense.

“We have put more police on the street,” Emanuel says in a video interview. “We are forcefully trying to get guns, kids, and drugs off the streets … Overall crime in the city is down 9 percent this year.”

Sobered Up

'I've Been Changed'

The president delivered a substantive address that conceded real change will take years. Howard Kurtz on his more nuanced message of hope.

President Obama invoked FDR in making his case for a second term on Thursday night, replacing his hope-and-change mantra with a more sober challenge for a “harder” path to economic prosperity.


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on stage to accept the nomination for president during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 6, 2012. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

In an acceptance speech seemingly aimed at critics who said he has been short on substance, Obama coupled a call for $4 trillion in deficit reduction—the deal he failed to strike with the Republicans—with a pitch for investments in energy and education while protecting middle-class benefits.

After stirring speeches by his wife and Bill Clinton, Obama faced a more daunting challenge in both rallying his base and spelling out why the next four years would be more successful than his difficult first term mired in economic malaise.


Bill Brings It

The former president fused folksiness and wonkiness in boosting his successor. Howard Kurtz on how he made the case that Obama struggles to make for himself.

Bill Clinton, riding to the rescue of his Democratic successor, delivered an entertaining tour de force Wednesday night, saying the Republicans had created a “total mess” that Barack Obama is still cleaning up.

“If you want a you’re-on-your-own, winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket,” Clinton said. “If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility—we’re-all-in-this-together society—you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

With one line, Clinton both acknowledged and neutralized Obama’s natural reserve, as a leader “who’s cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside.”


Michelle’s Resounding Triumph

The first lady thrilled the convention with a speech that melded politics and the personal. Howard Kurtz on a well-choreographed night for the Democrats.

Michelle Obama roused the Democratic convention on Tuesday night with a soft-spoken address that tied her modest upbringing and that of her husband to the values that have guided him as president.


First Lady Michelle Obama waves to supporters Tuesday night at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., on the first day of the Democratic National Convention. (Stan Honda / Getty Images)

In a well-paced, well-packaged opening night that avoided any Clint Eastwood moments, the first lady made a low-key but effective pitch that included this crowd-pleasing line: “Women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and health care.”

Avoiding the pungent language of other speakers, she weaved a narrative of biography and policy as she concluded, “Barack Obama knows the American Dream because he’s lived it.”

About the Author

Author headshot

Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN’s weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.


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