President Obama certainly showed up at this debate, and at points did quite well. Romney matched, and I think exceeded him by a bit, especially in the second half. But the debate was close.
Ultimately, the contest was tilted by Obama’s less-than-inspiring record. On the deficit, on the economy, and on Libya, Romney effectively took advantage of the weakness in that record. Romney’s answer on his differences with President George W. Bush was superb, and particularly effective.
The question is, regardless of who you thought might have edged out a victory, will Obama’s solid performance change the dynamic of the race coming out of the first debate. It will, in the sense of preventing the crash that would have come from two poor performances in a row for the president. Beyond that, however, I don’t think this debate will change all that much.
Common wisdom coming into today’s debate was that Obama needed a win to reverse Romney’s momentum, whereas a tie would have been sufficient for Romney to keep capitalizing on the new campaign dynamic. I think that was right. While I think Romney did a bit better than Obama tonight, neither side can point to an obvious, lopsided victory.
The core dynamic here is that Romney has proven himself to be a perfectly acceptable alternative to Obama. The silly portrayal of Romney in all those negative ads has been exploded. Obama’s inevitability is gone. The underlying state of the country, which is not at all good, has become the issue. All of that is bad for Obama and very good for Romney.
Does this guarantee victory to Romney? Not necessarily, but the fundamental dynamic of the race now favors the challenger. The core of Obama’s strategy was to distract attention from his record by rendering Romney unacceptable. That strategy has failed. In its absence, all Obama has is the hope of that his base is now large enough to hand him a narrow victory. Not impossible, but unlikely.
Narrowly, Romney is the victor tonight. More important, narrowly, Romney is now the favorite in this election.