Debates provide another view of candidates

The presidential debates of the 2012 election are now behind us. Barack Obama, the Democratic incumbent president running for re-election, and Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee and former governor of Massachusetts, made their pitches to the voters who watched them engage one another for almost five hours on three separate occasions.

Both candidates sought to woo undecided and female voters, the two groups within the electorate that the pundits and pollsters tell us will play an instrumental role in deciding the outcome of this election. With the debates behind them, Obama and Romney will hit the campaign trail hard and spend considerable time and resources in the key battleground states in the final days of this election season. And both contenders’ campaign organizations will work tirelessly and diligently to generate the all-important turnout needed to win this election.

The first debate, moderated by PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer, focused on domestic issues. The second debate displayed a town hall meeting format and was moderated by Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent. The third debate focused on foreign policy issues and was moderated by Bob Schieffer, the host of the CBS news show Face the Nation.

All three moderators had their hands full as they sought to enforce the ground rules and keep the discussions moving. Lehrer ended up losing control of the debate. Crowley had to contend with a defiant Romney who challenged her authority on more than one occasion. Schieffer did the best job keeping the discussions moving and the debaters in check, but he, too, was forced to assert his authority in several instances.

In fairness to Lehrer and Crowley, Schieffer’s job was made somewhat easier in that both candidates were seated at the table with him. Having Obama and Romney seated an arm’s length away worked to Schieffer’s advantage.

Romney was the big winner in the first debate. His performance provided his candidacy the bounce and momentum it failed to get from the party’s convention. Romney took full advantage of the first opportunity he had to appear on the same platform with his opponent. Being on the same stage with and debating an incumbent president enhanced his status as a candidate and framed his candidacy in a way that campaign ads cannot. Romney had everything to gain with a strong showing and everything to lose with a poor performance. He realized that this televised debate would be his opportunity to define himself and make a strong impression, especially on undecided voters. His impressive performance transformed him from a presidential nominee to a presidential contender. He was not the least bit intimidated by his rival. Romney’s performance was enhanced by Obama’s dismal performance. Obama appeared unprepared and even at a loss for words to articulate the points he sought to make.

The second debate was a different story. Obama, in particular, realized that he had to deliver the goods. A second inept performance on his part would certainly place in jeopardy his re-election bid. Romney desperately needed another strong showing. His impressive performance in the first debate provided his campaign the break it so badly needed. This debate, given another sensational showing on his part, would enhance his appeal heading into the final days of the campaign.

Romney wasted no time ripping into Obama and his administration’s record. He reminded voters of all the promises Obama had made in 2008 and that he had failed to keep far too many of those promises. He chided Obama for implementing policies that generated higher deficits and a massive federal debt that did nothing more than drag the nation down even further by prolonging the worst recession since the Great Depression. He criticized Obama’s “leading from behind” approach to dealing with international crises. He argued that Obama’s inept leadership record warranted a changing of the guard at the White House.

Obama matched Romney lick for lick. He did not allow Romney to bloody him the way he did in the first debate. He turned the tables on Romney. He forced Romney to defend his record in Massachusetts and his positions on the key issues in this election. By doing so, Obama regained the ground he lost in his first encounter with Romney.

The third debate was different in tone. Romney did not want to come across as a loose cannon. He did not hesitate to criticize Obama’s foreign policy record, but he chose his words carefully and picked his fights. He also sought to bring the economy into the discussions. Obama appeared more presidential and characterized Romney’s approach to foreign affairs as a throwback to the Cold War era. He shared personal experiences about what it is like to be our nation’s commander-in-chief. He sought to make his a voice of reason. He appeared more confident than Romney. By doing so, Obama came out on top.

(Don Livingston is a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. His field of expertise is the American presidency. Savannah Bell, a Franklin resident who earned an undergraduate degree at WCU, is studying in WCU’s master’s degree program in public affairs.)

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