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Romney Wins First Debate

A CNN snap poll/ taken right after the first debate shows that 67% of registered voters who watched the debate thought that Romney won whereas only 26% thought that Obama won. On the other hand, a CBS poll showed a much lower percentage of people who thought Romney won: only 46%, vs. 22% who thought Obama won.

That both polls put Romney ahead, albeit with different margins, is not entirely surprising given the performance of the two candidates. Romney was fired up and aggressive. Obama seemed a bit listless and uninterested. The early part of the debate was entirely on Republican territory. The candidates argued about who would have the better tax cut. Obama could have said that taxes are at a historic low and need to be increased so the government can support education, research, and other things as well as reducing the deficit in the future. The second part was also on Republican territory as the candidates sparred on who could cut the most government programs (i.e., fire the most people). Obama could have pointed out the many things the government does that people approve of (e.g., small business administration loans, aid to college students) but didn't.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Romney attacked Obama over and over on many points and Obama didn't fight back. He didn't talk about the video in which Romney calls 47% of the country moochers. He didn't point out how Bain capital milked many companies for millions in fees and then shipped their jobs overseas. No word about how when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, the state ranked 47th in job creation. He didn't shame Romney on his tax returns by saying that when Romney's father ran for President, he released 12 years of tax returns and the son has released only 2 years. All these topics have been the subject of television ads, but Obama didn't bring up any of them during the debate.

Even on topics where he enjoys an overwhelming advantage, Obama barely pressed his point. He did point out that Romney wants to cut taxes by $5 trillion but didn't make the case that there is no way to do that without increasing the deficit enormously or completely gutting programs that benefit the middle class. The public agrees with him on this but instead of hitting Romney over the head with it, he just mentioned it and let it slide. Also, he should have clobbered Romney on his plan to change Medicare into a voucher program, for example, by saying: "If your program is so great for seniors, how come your running mate was booed at the AARP convention?"

Romney repeatedly said that Obama had reduced Medicare by $716 billion. Obama could have point blank accused Romney of lying and let the fact checkers thrash this out today, but he didn't. All in all, a surprisingly passive performance from Obama.

After the debate, Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, promised that Obama would get much tougher with Romney next time, now that he knows how inconsistent Romney is. Axelrod inferred that yesterday was the moment that Romney shook the Etch-A-Sketch and that in the future what he says at a debate will be compared to what he has campaigned on all year and inconsistencies highlighted.

Political journalists tend to live for the moment and think whatever happened yesterday is the beginning and end of the universe. It's not. Here are five takeaways from the National Journal.

The fact checkers are starting to rev up. Some of the statements the candidates made are exaggerations or incomplete. Others may be technically correct but can't be attributed to the candidate's policies. For example, Romney claimed he would create 12 million new jobs in his first term. However, Moody's Analytics has predicted 12 million new jobs as the economy continues to recover, no matter who is President.

Of course, winning the first debate is not the same as winning the election. John Kerry decisively won the first debate in 2004 but didn't win the election. Also, the second debate is a town hall format, with questions from the audience, which has a completely different dynamic. Finally, a chastened Obama may hit back much harder next time.

Another loser last night was moderator Jim Lehrer. He completely lost control. Romney kept talking beyond his alloted time slots and when Lehrer tried to stop him, wouldn't stop. He could have said: "Governor, we agreed to some rules in advance and I'd appreciate it if you would follow them." Obama also spoke too long upon occasion but only once did Lehrer call him on it. Clearly Lehrer preferred being in the background. But as a consequence of his reticence, the sixth 15-minute segment (on governing) got only 3 minutes.

Also worth noting is the networks' habit of interviewing highly partisan people after the debate and pretending they are neutral observers. For example, CNN's team included failed Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and Alex Castellanos, a long-time Republican campaign consultant as well as Democrat James Carville. They were not identified as such. Needless to say, they touted their own teams. Many viewers may not have realized that everything they said could have been written long before the debate--and probably was. Maybe they should have been required to wear elephant and donkey logos, respectively.

The debate could have repercussions downticket. Republican funders who were toying with the idea of giving up on Romney and pouring their millions into Senate and House races are probably not going to to do that quite yet. The consequence is that Democratic Senate and House candidates may get some more breathing space for a while and if the funders do eventually abandon Romney, it may be too late to make a difference in the other races.

Today's Presidential Polls

State Obama Romney   Start End Pollster
Arizona 44% 53%   Oct 01 Oct 03 PPP
Florida 47% 46%   Sep 30 Oct 01 Marist Coll.
Louisiana 37% 50%   Sep 29 Sep 30 Zogby
Louisiana 39% 45%   Sep 11 Sep 20 Southern Media + Opinion
Missouri 45% 51%   Oct 01 Oct 03 PPP
North Carolina 47% 51%   Oct 02 Oct 02 Rasmussen
New Hampshire 51% 44%   Sep 24 Sep 25 PPP
New Jersey 56% 39%   Sep 27 Sep 30 Rutgers-Eagleton
Ohio 51% 43%   Sep 30 Oct 01 Marist Coll.
Texas 39% 58%   Sep 10 Sep 26 Texas Lyceum
Virginia 48% 46%   Sep 30 Oct 01 Marist Coll.
Washington 56% 36%   Sep 28 Sep 30 SurveyUSA
Wisconsin 49% 39%   Sep 29 Sep 30 Zogby
Wisconsin 53% 42%   Sep 27 Sep 30 Marquette Law School

Today's Senate Polls

State Democrat D % Republican R % I I % Start End Pollster
Arizona Richard Carmona 45% Jeff Flake 43%     Oct 01 Oct 03 PPP
Florida Bill Nelson* 52% Connie McGillicuddy 41%     Sep 30 Oct 01 Marist Coll.
Missouri Claire McCaskill* 46% Todd Akin 40%     Oct 01 Oct 03 PPP
Missouri Claire McCaskill* 51% Todd Akin 45%     Oct 02 Oct 02 Rasmussen
Ohio Sherrod Brown* 50% Josh Mandel 41%     Sep 30 Oct 01 Marist Coll.
Texas Paul Sadler 24% Ted Cruz 50%     Sep 10 Sep 26 Texas Lyceum
Virginia Tim Kaine 49% George Allen 44%     Sep 30 Oct 01 Marist Coll.
Wisconsin Tammy Baldwin 48% Tommy Thompson 44%     Sep 27 Sep 30 Marquette Law School

* Denotes incumbent