I thought Romney was effective in both debates, but especially in the first one. His demeanor was perfect: Each time Obama pontificated and lectured or wandered, Romney on the split screen seemed almost genuinely puzzled, bit his lip and looked bemused or disappointed rather than angry — as if lamenting that Obama had chosen that unfortunate route that led nowhere. And then when he argued, Romney was earnest and sincere as if to say to the audience, “I really want all of us to learn exactly what this president is trying to say.” In other words, there was just the right mixture of empathy and sincerity, and without sarcasm or condescension.
In the second debate, at times Romney repeated that empathetic performance, but also got riled by the interruptions, the out-of-bounds moderator, and Obama’s own wild stories on Libya and gas/oil production, and so became combative rather than reflective. These are just nuances and impressions, it is true, but I think Romney will seal the deal if he can return to his initial inquisitive role of an interrogator of the young petulant Obama rather than get on par with him in a slugfest of charges and slurs. Dozens of people have remarked to me of the first debate, “I didn’t know that Romney was such a decent guy,” with the inference that Obama was not nearly so.