11:45 pm ET
Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the election.
Style: Started strong, level, and unrattled — and strengthened as he went along. Spoke with a calm, pleasant demeanor, using an even tone, pace, and style he has rarely displayed in recent months (without the defensiveness, self-consciousness, or forced sincerity that he sometimes exhibits in interviews and on the stump). Despite perceptibly thorough debate prep, he did not seem too rehearsed. Was not intimidated by the event, the stakes, or his opponent. Took on the President without being strident, sarcastic, hostile, or disrespectful. He spoke clearly and often from the heart as well as the brain. When expressing concern for those Americans in need, he came across as a successful person who has committed himself to service rather than as a naive plutocrat. His slightly hoarse voice actually helped him, allowing him to modulate his words and eliminate a tendency to veer into an earnest whine. With awareness, checked his bad habit from the Republican nomination debates of protesting rule-bending or moderator decisions. Spent a lot of time looking directly at his rival. Was obviously well served by practice debates with his Obama stand-in, Ohio Senator Rob Portman; he maintained his composure, and was able to both listen and construct a tight rebuttal while Obama spoke.
Substance: Played a lot of defense on his tax cut, without ever really going beyond insistent denials that Obama’s charges weren’t true. Twisted some facts that will cause a hammering by truth squaders, but nothing more egregious than usual or enough to cause a firestorm or distract from his bottom-line debate win. Like the President, didn’t drill down beyond the generalities that have characterized this contest.
His worst moment: Evasive and slippery when dodging a question on entitlement reform.
His best moment: Challenged Obama on the deficit with confidence, moral purpose, and measured aggression.
The main thing: A performance that will both delight the Republican base and make undecided voters take note. Was the dominant figure on the stage on almost every exchange. Refreshingly, seemed to be naturally himself. He clearly studied hard, prepared carefully, got confident with all his answers, accepted some good advice, and was in a place where he could forget about all the distractions and pressures and just channel his best presidential self. Benefited from his underdog status in the pre-debate expectations game by coming off as ever bit the equal of the incumbent in style and knowledge of the job. Avoided the verbal and stylistic tics that have been a turnoff in the past. Got a full chance to make the argument on the economy that he believes is the basis for victory. No magic single moment or moments to punctuate a clear win, but Romney and his aides can have a reasonable hope that Denver will move some poll numbers, if voters now see Romney as a leader, not an awkward bumbling rich man.
Style: Displayed many of the traits that have earned him a reputation as not particularly good at debating (too cool, too ponderous, irritable when challenged). Seemed to be distracted by the drama of the event itself, rather than focusing on the task at hand or the job in the White House. Showed respect for his opponent throughout, and tried to appear congenial. But looked tired and seemed a little twitchy and nervous; lacked fire and inspiration.
Substance: Failed to address the realities of the flaws in his administrative record and the lack of specifics in his future agenda. As he does on the campaign trail, spent considerably more time and vigor denouncing Romney’s ideas than trying to present his own. Reminding viewers of the mess he inherited four years ago, both at the beginning and at the end of the evening, sounded defensive.
His worst moment: He defended his deficit record by blaming George Bush and claiming credit for spending cuts, then wandered around the topic, getting uncharacteristically lost in the weeds.
His best moment: An extended colloquy that forced Romney to repeatedly defend his tax proposal, eating up a lot of time.
The main thing: Surprisingly, seemed more nervous and tentative than his challenger, who was in his first ever general election debate. Was frequently scattered and uncertain, almost passive. At other times, tired and disengaged. Played defense more than Romney and seemed to cede the agenda to the challenger, failing to strike on many of the Republican’s greatest vulnerabilities (which his campaign efficiently attacks regularly). Unlike his rival, rarely spoke directly to the American people; rather, he sometimes seemed to be addressing a think tank luncheon. Wasn’t blown out but gave off no sense of energy, no sense that he actually wants to fight for his job or is eager to win over new supporters. Even when he scored substantive points on issues such as taxes and Medicare, he was so sedated that a viewer could be forgiven for not registering the victory. Whether he was rusty, overconfident, or both, whether his staff and prep team were reluctant to guide or correct him during rehearsal, his aides know full well, he needs to do better at the next debate. Still ahead and stronger in the Electoral College, but the media pressure now on him will sustain at least through the rematch.