Who's Won Over?

Mitt Romney’s Glib Performance Won the Debate, but What About Voters?

While he won the debate on style, his slick performance may not have wowed voters, says Eleanor Clift.

Eric Gay / AP

Mitt Romney was fired up and ready to go Wednesday in Denver, turning in a performance that exceeded expectations and had President Obama on the defensive for much of the night. “It’s fun, isn’t it,” Romney exclaimed when moderator Jim Lehrer noted the candidates had gone over the time limit on the first segment—and no wonder. Romney was on a roll.

He didn’t let up for the entire 90 minutes, while Obama seemed curiously passive, never mentioning the 47 percent tape that has hampered Romney’s campaign, and failing for most of the evening to drive points in a concise way, the professorial flaw the three days of debate camp was supposed to correct.

The speaking time clock CNN posted on the bottom of the screen showed Obama with an edge over Romney in airtime, but if there were a word count, Romney would surely come out ahead. And if the debate was viewed through the facial expressions shown on camera, Romney looked pretty happy with himself while Obama looked peeved and frustrated, remembering only occasionally to flash a smile.

Romney won on style and debating points, filling the screen more substantially and confidently. But Obama, for those who paid attention to what he said, stuck more closely to the facts, refuting Romney’s gauzy promises about cutting tax rates without cutting tax revenue, repealing Obamacare while keeping the parts he likes, and doing away with the Dodd-Frank financial reform while accusing Obama of coddling the banks.

Lehrer did a good job following up, and he nabbed Romney on more than one occasion for a glib assertion that didn’t line up with the facts. When Romney lit into Obama for failing to adopt the deficit-cutting recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission, Lehrer asked if Romney supported Simpson-Bowles. “I have my own plan,” Romney said, quickly skittering away.

Romney delivered several zingers as expected, but none were home runs. His skill is in mixing facts and falsehoods, and speaking in such rapid-fire fashion that Obama appeared flummoxed much of the time. Even so, Romney did little Wednesday night to cure his biggest problem, a failure to create a bond of trust with the American people. His glib, even slick performance may score with debate coaches but the American people may not be similarly wowed.