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Romney Decisively Wins Debate; Obama Manages To Stay Awake

President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speak during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday. (Eric Gay/AP)

President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speak during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday. (Eric Gay/AP)

In a CNN poll of viewers of Wednesday night’s first presidential debate, 67 percent thought Mitt Romney won, while only 25 percent gave it to President Obama.

The debate was surprisingly lopsided. Romney has never been as persuasive.

Obama, by contrast, lacked energy and focus. It was as if he just woke up from a nap. He didn’t have any great moments or seemed passionate about anything. He spoke longer, by four minutes, but seemed to say less.

The CNN poll also had these surprising results:

- Who was more likable? Romney 46 percent, Obama 45 percent

– Who was the stronger leader? Romney 58 percent, Obama 37 percent

– Who did the debate make you more likely to vote for? Romney 35 percent, Obama 18 percent, Neither 47 percent

In the poll, voters favored Romney on handling the economy, 55 to 43 percent. In recent weeks Romney’s support on that all-important issue had eroded.

Who would better handle health care? Romney 52 percent, Obama 47 percent. Taxes? Romney 53 percent, Obama 44 percent. Some Democrats might now fault the poll sample, as Republicans have been complaining about the samples of recent polls showing Romney behind. But clearly it was not a good night for the Obama campaign, as evidenced by their leaving the debate Spin Room much earlier than the Romney surrogates, who were enjoying themselves.

Debates rarely produce such a clear winner.

I expected that “47 percent” would be the key figure in this debate, and it was. Obama was on the defensive about 47 percent of the time.

Obama supporters will remain supportive. But this debate could open the minds of some undecided, independent voters in swing states. It will also change the way the media cover this race. Instead of focusing on Obama’s lead in the polls and Romney’s stumbles, now — as predicted by N.J. Gov. Chris Christie — the dynamic of the race will change.

The least believable line in the debate was Obama saying, in his closing, that it was a “terrific debate.” You could tell from his expression that he didn’t believe it.

The line that will inspire Romney supporters was his saying that Obama believed in “trickle-down government.”

Some Obama supporters are disappointed, but they won’t be demoralized. They know their candidate is better than what they saw on stage and will likely do better in the next debate. But they are mystified as to why he was so listless and failed to go after Romney more effectively. His language and arguments seem old and tired.

If you compare the closing statements, you’ll see that Romney came prepared whereas Obama barely showed up. Romney gave a two-minute speech that made an eloquent case for change. He criticized Obama policies with specificity, yet kept the arguments at the higher level of the nation deserving a new, better path — rather than sounding too partisan.

Obama’s closing was pretty unfocused. He didn’t have a clear, compelling argument for why he deserved re-election.

Obama actually seemed to nod in agreement when Romney was rebutting some of the standard charges made against him. When Romney said that his plan to cut taxes would not reduce government revenue by $5 trillion over 10 years, Obama said, “OK.”

Romney was able to sound bipartisan at times, moderate on education and financial regulation, and took the threat out of “MediScare” when the president agreed that Romney’s changes wouldn’t affect current retirees. That’s a big issue for the Democrats to give up, and their candidates must have found that worrisome.

In body language, Romney seemed the stronger, more self-assured candidate. He seemed, in a word, presidential. He looked at the president while talking and, when not taking notes, listening to him. By contrast, Obama didn’t seem to know where to look — he kept shifting his attention, from the moderator and audience to his opponent. He didn’t look comfortable — as if he was surprised to hear such direct criticism of his policies.

The debate was more substantive than any we’ve seen for a while. The questions were important and fair. The format and moderator allowed for plenty of give-and-take.

Polls before the debate showed that most people expected Obama to win this debate. Romney not only beat that expectation, he far exceeded expectations of his supporters.

Maybe Obama’s debate coaches or the moderator will be blamed by his fans for his weak performance. But you can bet that he’ll have a very different style in the next debate. If he doesn’t, this will become a very different contest.

Todd Domke is WBUR’s Republican analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.

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