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Voters now see Romney as a likeable leader

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Oct. 4, 2012: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a Colorado Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) meeting.AP

The left’s worst nightmare is becoming a reality, and historic post-debate polling numbers reflect those fears. New reports indicate the Rocky Mountain presidential debate moved invaluable mountains for the Romney for President campaign.  His debate performance demonstrated what no number of ads and no amount of money had been able to buy – that he’s a likable leader. 

The latest Gallup tracking poll shows Romney scored a decisive 52-point debate win (72% - 20%) over President Obama.  The former Massachusetts governor also pulled ahead of President Obama 49% - 45% in the latest Pew Research Center’s presidential poll.

I must admit to having an unexpected bout of pre-debate doubts heading into Denver.  Attending a number of focus groups and interactive polls recently, I heard from voters across the spectrum - men, women, undecided, independent, liberal, and conservative.  Most notable were the views of the all-important independent voters in the battleground states.

Many saw Gov. Romney as a competent businessman, but they viewed the CEO title as a negative, one that gave him an “out-of-touch” air.  Despite Romney’s record of success, at the time, many said they didn’t plan to vote for him simply because they didn’t like him. 

Yet, after 18 months of campaigning across the country and countless hours of paid and earned media, it took just 90 minutes of facts and fortitude on the debate stage in Denver for the former Massachusetts governor to change that perception.

Gov. Romney stayed on offense, defined Obama’s record, and outlined his own.  One Romney senior adviser said he was able to demonstrate he’s “smart, articulate, and has a big heart.” Romney moved the likable needle in his direction during the debate.

Minutes after the candidates left the stage, 56% of participants in a CBS poll of uncommitted voters said their image of Romney improved as a result of the debate. 

As for the CEO title, Romney used his debate time to demonstrate that his vast experience as an executive is more valuable than that of a community organizer.  He was polite, yet pointed, in educating President Barack Obama on tax rates, debt reduction, budget cuts, and the value of free markets.  Adding in personal stories, Governor Romney was able to show voters that “exec” is not a four-letter word.

Immediately post-debate, Romney’s support jumped 17% (27%-44%) among a group of swing voters watching the event in Denver.  The Democracy Corps / Women’s Voices poll also showed a 27% (44%-71%) increase in his favorability.

As far as the pre-debate perception of President Obama, many of those same undecided voters admitted the president has failed to make things better for the American people, and they believe he has been a less than truthful campaigner. That said, they were at the time leaning towards the president because they liked him.  Many acknowledged, it wasn’t about credibility, it was about likability.

It’s safe to say the debate was an eye opening experience for them.  Without his TelePrompter, the president was often at a loss for words and unable to defend his record. As George Will wrote recently, “his vanity…. Perhaps blinds him to the need to prepare.”

The leader of the free world didn’t appear to understand that a debate stage is a level playing field for him as a presidential candidate.  He avoided eye contact, was easily distracted, and appeared as though he was above the rules when moderator Jim Lehrer imposed the two-minute rule.  In a word, President Obama appeared unlikable.

The information in Rasmussen Results post-debate polls in key battleground states show President Obama has lost his lead Florida and Virginia.

I expect Governor Romney to enter the second debate with the same level of preparation and poise.  I expect him to exit with yet another example of himself as a likable leader; something a bottomless war chest can’t buy.

Alice Stewart is a Republican Strategist.  She was Press Secretary for Rick Santorum for President and Communications Director for Michele Bachmann for President.  She also served as surrogate for Romney for President and the Republican National Committee.  She is spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America.  In 2008, Stewart was Press Secretary for Mike Huckabee for President.