So it's a horse race after all. If there were any doubts that he was in this to the finish, Mitt Romney erased them last night. Yes, he can run...at least to the middle. But we'll come back to that.
Since televised presidential debates are just that - televised - let's start with the visuals. The point has been made before, but is worth repeating. By merely stepping onto the stage with a sitting President, the challenger, any challenger, immediately gains in stature. In the Denver auditorium Mitt Romney rose to the occasion and appeared every inch the President. And his Republican red tie stood in stark contrast to Barack Obama's cool blue. With his poll numbers inching steadily upward, it's hard to imagine the President feeling blue, but at least during the first half of the debate he seemed a little tired, even diminished by the weight of four difficult years in office. His opponent, by contrast, looked well rested, at ease, and ready to go.
Let's be fair. From the get go, the format favoured the challenger. Having lost a coin toss earlier in the evening, the President got the first question and had no time to think about his answer. But when asked about how he planned to create jobs, Barack Obama seized the moment to congratulate his wife on their 20th wedding anniversary. Really now, what is this election about? Who would make the best husband-in-chief?
The sad thing is that some Americans probably will vote for the family man, and given all the talk about Monica Lewinsky's forthcoming tell-all memoir, there actually may be some small benefit in drawing a distinction between Barack and the last Democratic President to run for re-election, big Bill Clinton.
More significant is the fact that a debate between a sitting President and his opponent is always going to be about the President's record. Mitt Romney clearly came prepared to challenge that record and link it to the country's on-going economic troubles. And he seized the many opportunities presented by a befuddled moderator to keep the debate focused on the past four years. Obama effectively defended his record, but he rarely succeeded at turning the tables.
Why didn't Romney have to defend his dismissal of those 47 % of Americans who he claimed won't take "personal responsibility or care for their lives?" Why didn't he have to explain why it is ok for multimillionaires to pay lower taxes on capital gains than their secretaries pay on the equivalent amount of earned income? And why don't we know the extent of Romney's off-shore tax-saving arrangements?
I raise these issues not because Mitt Romney is a rich man, but because Mitt Romney used his first debate with the President to run to the centre and huddle with the middle class. Gone was the Romney of the Republican primaries and most of the right-wing red meat rhetoric too. Instead we saw a kinder and gentler man who wants us to believe that he passionately cares for the plight of average Americans. This was Massachusetts Mitt, the one who passed universal health care and once supported abortion rights; the very same Mitt mistrusted by the Tea Party and the religious right.
True, Obama missed more than one opportunity to go on the offensive and force his opponent to reveal the details of any of those unseen "plans" he kept referring to (I counted at least four). But I'm not so sure that Romney will emerge the ultimate winner of this debate. By showing how quickly he is willing to throw off the cloak of the Republican right in order to appeal to mainstream Americans, he may have served to alienate both groups. After last night more than one American will be asking, "Just who is this man, Mitt Romney?"