Shock, awe and anger

On a hunch, and more for grins than anything else, I switched to MSNBC immediately following the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. I found — or heard — what I was looking for: astonishment at the incumbent’s poor performance. Shock and awe, you might call it. And anger. Poor Chris Matthews was so lathered I feared his Liberal Lion’s heart would leap from his chest in a spray of blue arterial blood; as it was his necktie curled from his own spittle. None of his “Lean Forward” colleagues were quite so exercised but neither could any of them offer much in the way of comfort.

Plainly stated, Mr. Obama bombed. He allowed Romney to walk all over him. The president used none of the talking points his opponent had spent months gift-wrapping for him — Romney’s dismissal of 47 percent of the electorate as sloths, for one glaring example, and his opposition to the auto bailout — and relied instead on his customary persona of calculated intellect, with a solemn recitation of government statistics and progress claimed. It didn’t work.

Appearing distracted, at times even disinterested and sometimes unflatteringly amused, Mr. Obama ceded the initiative to Romney from the first moments. His mention that the Denver debate coincided with the Obamas’ wedding anniversary didn’t give the president much traction and scored no points. Perhaps Michelle had other plans for the evening. Certainly Mr. Obama’s supporters had other expectations.

The exasperation of MSNBC’s crowd of commentators was useful only in that it suggested the dismay-unto-horror of other, less strident Democratic voices, who began texting, Twittering and e-mailing one another less than a quarter-hour after the dialogue began.

“What’s going on w/ him? What’s wrong w/ him?” asked a well-known Arkansas Democrat in an e-mail sent, at 8:31 p.m., to a dozen or more friends, including me.

“Wake him up!!!!!!!!!!” wrote one of the addressees, at 8:38.

From a Republican friend, at 8:44: “He’s toast!” He meant Mr. Obama.

Well, for the night, certainly. But for the long haul, it remains to be seen.

“I’m not sure debates change that much,” former Sen. Dale Bumpers told me the following day. “Maybe a little, but it’s early.

“Romney’s obviously a very intelligent guy, but he’s never been considered a politician’s politician, so a lot of people were surprised” by his strong debate performance. “I was among them,” Bumpers said.

I called Bumpers because, a half-hour into the first Obama-Romney encounter, I was reminded of his debate, in 1986, with Republican challenger Asa Hutchinson. Bumpers had shown up looking exhausted. And maybe distracted and even disinterested. Hutchinson mopped the floor with him.

“I was never so disappointed in myself as I was that night,” Bumpers confessed. “And I was tired, just beat. My mind wasn’t at all fresh.”

I called Hutchinson, too.

“Dale was the incumbent and I think he treated the debate as something of a nuisance, and that came out,” Hutchinson said. He saw a parallel: “Obama looked like ‘This is something I should not have to be dealing with.’

“He kept Obama on the defensive, he made his case as an experienced businessman,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson noticed something else, something I confessed I had missed during the debate, an omission on Romney’s part that equaled Mr. Obama’s choice to not mention his rival’s 47 percent remark: “(Romney) didn’t get into Obama’s comment about ‘you didn’t build this.’”

“Obviously,” in Hutchinson’s estimation, each candidate made “a conscious decision” to avoid the rhetorical gaffes of the other, to the Republican’s ultimate favor. “The debate really focused on substantive issues, and that played to Romney’s benefit.”

Can a single debate make or break a campaign? Rarely, though Arkansas, in 1972, provided an exception to the rule, when-U.S. Rep. David Pryor was devoured by incumbent Sen. John McClellan in their single televised confrontation. But note: their debate was held two days before the runoff primary, giving Pryor no time to win back the undecided voters who, polls showed, almost uniformly swung to McClellan.

“I think Obama has more than enough time to make up” for whatever damage he inflicted on himself in the first debate, Bumpers said, conceding there was some.

Rather than gloat, Hutchinson was cautious about the two Obama-Romney debates to come.

“I think it will be a totally different game next time.”

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.