5 key lessons from the Denver debate

While I doubt  we will see headlines describing Wednesday night’s first presidential debate in Denver as “the Colorado clubbing” or “the Rocky Mountain stampede,” it’s clear to me that Mitt Romney forcefully controlled and won round one of the presidential debates.

I realize “forcefully” and Romney sound to many Republicans like an oxymoron when used in the same sentence because most conservatives I talked to prior to the debate had grown exasperated with the campaign’s seeming inability to take the fight to Obama. That changed tonight. The saying is that when the going gets tough, the tough get going and remarkably Romney showed something most have not seen as he had been described as too kind, soft or worse. Tonight’s performance breathed new life into his campaign for the critical final sprint between here and November.

Five things we saw at round one tonight in Denver stand out:

1. A debate plan that’s out of touch. The presidential debate commission is clearly out of touch with the rhythm of their debates, and accordingly in his role I felt sorry for moderator Jim Lehrer. Much had been made of him as a “partisan” or “a media elite.” To me, he came across as neither. Instead he appeared a sleepy grandfather who within minutes had lost control over whatever might occur over the next ninety minutes.

2. TelePrompters and staged crowds can be dangerous to your reelection prospects. They lull you into an isolation that leads you to thinking you are right, and as if awoken from that happy dream the president Wednesday night found himself in a far less comforting reality. The other guy, that Romney guy, actually spoke back…and disagreed. Not on a television set or some far away place, but right there. In this vein, one of the best lines of the night came when the president said something about tax credits for companies shipping jobs overseas. At a campaign rally in Akron with staged supporters I’m sure that draws an applause. Problem is this wasn’t Ohio, and when Romney shot back with the fact that he had been in business for 25 years and had no idea what in the world he was talking about, the president looked stunned.

3. Romney shouldn’t leave this spot. I’m not talking about Denver, but about the issues he won on tonight -- on the economy, heath care, debt and the role of government. The saying in politics is that if you are explaining, generally you are losing. Romney holds the high ground on these issues and though he has a clear interest in foreign policy, he will be making a big mistake to pivot in future debates from what served him so well Wednesday night. It was James Carville who said years ago in Clinton’s race against Bush, “it’s the economy stupid.” This year it is again -- and Romney had best park the campaign bus on that spot.

4. How we say it matters. In ways we don’t appreciate as candidates it’s often not what we say, but how we say it that counts most. I’ve had more than my share of debates over the years and they were always bizarre cram session with all too many aides giving you all too many facts. Then at the end the head guy would come out and say, now just go have fun and be yourself. At the time you are thinking he is out of his mind, but the advice would have served Obama well tonight. As a spectator you just can’t remember all the words, but you can remember the feel. Tonight, too often, the president looked like he just didn’t want to be there. As Romney leaned in, Obama seemed to retreat rather than engage. Keep it up for a few more debates and the president might be putting that professorial style to good use -- in academia.

5. Romney still has work to do. The GOP challenger still failed in making a compelling case for how bad our situation is and why we need to shift drivers in the Oval Office. Romney was the best I’ve ever seen him, but the arguments were still tied to the ingredients of the American dream rather than the ways in which the dream itself is at risk. The American dream and system is premised on the notion that one’s children will do better than we do – people in increasing numbers don’t believe that. Romney needs to directly show Americans how Obama’s policies have moved us away from the security of that dream and how his will bring it back.

It ain’t over yet. The formality of a formal debate setup favored Romney’s formality; the next debate will be an open town hall meeting format that will probably favor the president. So Team Romney would be wise to savor Wednesday night’s win, round one went their way, but realize we still have weeks and three more rounds to go in this contest we call the race for president.