WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is looking to build political momentum after his strong debate performance Wednesday against the man he would like to replace in November, President Barack Obama.
It was clear from the start of the debate that Romney wanted to take control and keep the focus squarely on the president's economic record.
“Under the president’s policies, middle income Americans have been buried. They are just being crushed,” said Romney.
Romney appeared relaxed and comfortable on stage. He was aggressive in criticizing the Democratic president’s record but stayed away from personal attacks.
Analysts generally gave Obama poor marks on his debate performance. Many said the president appeared on the defensive and that his responses to the Romney attacks lacked energy and passion.
Obama did display more energy at a rally in Colorado the day after the debate and signaled a tougher approach to Romney in the remaining two debates.
“So you see the man on stage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year, and that’s because he knows full well that we don’t want what he’s been selling for the past year,” declared Obama.
The president’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod, told reporters in a conference call that the Obama team will be making some adjustments in future debates.
“You have to strike a balance. You can’t allow someone to stand there and basically manhandle the truth about their own record and ideas and about yours,” he said.
The difference in demeanor between the two men was noticeable, said political analyst Charlie Cook.
“Obama seemed to be like a [sports] team sitting on a lead. I wouldn’t have said smug, just somebody who didn’t seem terribly hungry for it,” he said.
Cook said it remains to be seen, though, whether Romney’s debate performance will sway undecided voters in swing states where both campaigns are battling for support.
“And so the question is, just how much does this move [voters] in Ohio, in Virginia, in Florida, in Colorado and in these swing states,” he said.
Republican pollster Glen Bolger said Romney also took steps to improve his personal image with voters, an area where Obama has long held an advantage in public opinion polls.
“How much did Mitt Romney help his image? How much did he raise his favorables? And I think that Romney came across as someone who was more genuine than they had realized and somebody who could step into the Oval Office and have no problem doing that,” said Bolger.
At the very least, Romney’s performance could reassure Republicans, who were worried that the president was starting to build an irreversible lead in some of the key states where the election will be decided.
Presidential debates are always significant events, though they do not always prove to be decisive. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry was seen by many as the winner of his debates with President George W. Bush but still went on to defeat.
John Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 both benefited from strong debate performances in successful campaigns for the White House.