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Rediff News  All News  » News » Aziz's take: And the first round goes to Romney

Aziz's take: And the first round goes to Romney

Last updated on: October 04, 2012 16:41 IST

Romney may not have scored a knock-out, but like Joe Frazier in the first of Smoking Joe's fights with Ali, he was the clear winner on points, says Aziz Haniffa

The hype for the first of the three debates between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the erstwhile governor of Massachusetts -- what with 24/7cable television stations, the blogosphere and tweets in addition to the mainstream media -- was reminiscent of the run-up to the first Ali-Frazier 'Thrilla in Manila."

Even though both candidates tried to lower expectations with each one saying the other was the more eloquent or better debater, Romney was clearly the underdog, trailing the president in all of the polls.

This was especially in the battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and even Florida, more so after his controversial faux pas with his 47 per cent remark at a closed-door fund-raiser with high-roller donors which was secretly videotaped. The Obama campaign ran it, filling the airvaves with a plethora of negative ads saying that Romney did not care about the middle-class of poor and had virtually written off almost half of the electorate.

Even respected conservative pundits such as former President Ronald Reagan's speech-writer Peggy Noonan and Weekly Standard founder and editor William Kristol had all but written off Romney after his gaffe, which had only compounded the woes of the Republican establishment who had seen Obama get a significant bounce after the Democratic Convention where ex President Bill Clinton had gone to bat for him with a superb soliloquy warning that a Romney presidency would be disastrous for the middle class and hence it was imperative that Americans re-elect Obama.

Clinton, in 45 minutes, communicated to the America people what the Obama administration had been unable to do in four years.

So, Romney coming into this debate had everything to lose. Even if he lost to Obama on points or even if it ended in a tie, it could have signaled the end of his more than decade-long quest to be president of the United States of America. He would have been dead in the water, kaput, el finito!

After his 47 per cent remark, he came into the debate with 47 per cent of the American people having a negative view of him while 53 per cent of the likely voters felt Obama would be better for the middle class.

Perhaps because this first debate was to be exclusively on the economy, jobs, the debt and deficit, it lent itself to all the prepping Romney had been doing where he would focus on jobs, jobs, jobs, and like Smoking Joe, he came out smoking, and Obama, like Ali, who at the time was said to have not trained enough for the fight, seemed listless and hardly landed any of the body blows that would render Romney ineffectual.

At the end of the debate, there was no denying that Romney like Frazier had won on points.

Thus, when some had all but written off Romney after Obama took the lead in all of the polls, surpassing the margin of error, the race was not still wide open -- a quintessential horse-race.

It was a good night for the former Massachusetts governor who not only held his own but then some, and instead of playing defense, as he was expected to by all the pundits, essentially played offense, and took the fight to Obama who clearly seemed surprised by the aggressiveness of the challenger and his penchant for coming right back at him every time he thought he had thrown a jab that was expected to shake Romney.

Much to the surprise surely of the more than 60 million viewers expected to tune in, Obama also did not use any of the attacks on Romney's 47 per cent remarks or his tenure as head of Bain Capital or Romney's tax returns on his more than $20 million annual earning that his campaign has been filling the airwwaves with pointing to Romney being out of touch with the middle class and outsourcing American jobs overseas.

Obviously, Romney's participation in several nasty primary debates where after he lost the first few to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, he came back strong to slam-dunk Gingrich, and win the Florida primaries resoundingly held him in good stead, as did the intense prepping he did with Ohio Senator Rob Portman engaging him in mock debates playing Obama.

The president, who had not debated since 2008 was evidently rusty and his performance didn't speak well of Senator John F Kerry, who had played Romney in the mock debates he prepped.

Despite his campaign aides imploring him to be more succinct and less professorial, Obama apparently didn't seem to be able to shrug off these impediments against the aggressively charging Romney.

No less a person that David Gergen, professor of public policy at the Harvard School of Government and former aide to six presidents, who is now also an analyst with CNN,  declared, "Mitt Romney -- his performance was head and shoulders above anything we've ever seen him do before."

"It was his best debate by far. He drove this debate far more than anybody might have imagined," Gergen said. "The format lent itself to one or the other candidates trying to drive the debate and he seized upon the opportunity. He set the standard for it," he said.

The highly respected pundit said Obama he believed, "Was rusty so much as, I don't think anybody's ever spoken to him like that over the last four years. I think he found that not only surprising but offensive in some ways. It looked like he was angry at times."

"To my surprise, I had not expected this. Romney won the debate," Gergen said.

Even James Carville, the 'Raging Cajun', who had run Clinton's successful presidential campaign with the slogan, "It's the economy, stupid," acknowledged grudgingly that Romney was the victor.

He said, "I had one overwhelming impression and I did everything I could not to reach it, but I had to reach it. And, it looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there."

Carville, also an analyst with CNN, reiterated, "It seemed like he was happy to be there debating, (while) President Obama kind of gave the impression that the whole thing was kind of a lot of trouble."

He agreed with the consensus of pundits that "I do think that Romney had a good night," and said that while Obama seemed like he wanted to have a conversation, Romney "came with a chain-saw!"

Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for Obama's re-election, and a former White House staffer, when challenged by a reporter on the floor after the debate at the University of Denver, Colorado that Obama lacked the passion he displays on the campaign trail, was defensive, saying, "We came here with a specific purpose and we told everybody what that purpose was -- it was to have a conversation with voters about his specific plans to move the country forward, and he did that tonight."

"Mitt Romney, yes, he absolutely wins the preparations and he wins the style points," she said bristling. "But that's not what's been dogging his campaign. What's been dogging his campaign are the policies that he doubled down on Wednesday."

CBS News which conducted a poll immediately after the debate among uncommitted voters -- the type Romney needs to win over if he's to ascend to the presidency come November 6, said the results showed a convincing victory for Romney.

To the question of which candidate did the best job or won Wednesday's debate, 46 per cent said Romney, with only 22 per cent for Obama, indicating a 2 to 1 victory. And, when the needle was moved to the question of whether after the debate, if their opinion of Romney had changed for the better, 56 per cent said it had and only 11 per cent said it had changed for the worst.

And, to the all important question that Romney simply cannot relate to the middle class or ordinary Americans, before the debate only 30 per cent had said Romney cares for their needs and problems to 53 per cent for Obama.

After the debate, Romney's numbers doubled to 63 per cent, and Obama's moved up only slightly with Romney clearly gaining a lot of ground in this respect.

Romney's likeability factor, which has come up for stinging criticism, also may have gotten a boost when after Obama in his opening remarks wished his wife First Lady Michelle Obama on their 20th wedding anniversary, Romney said, "Congratulations to you Mr President on your anniversary."

And then to peals of laughter from the audience of several thousands, quipped, "I am sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine -- here with me."

The Romney campaign couldn't contain its joy over and instantly sent out the gushing by the media and other pundits over their man's performance.

Portman in a statement said, "Mitt Romney was the clear winner of Wednesday's debate. The pro-growth policies he discussed stand in stark contrast to President Obama's failed policies.

"During the last four years in the Obama economy, middle-class families have struggled with less take-home pay, higher health care costs, unemployment above 8 per cent for 43 months in a row, and sky-high debt that our children and grandchildren will have to pay," he said.

There's no doubt we can't afford another four years of President Obama's failed policies, and Mitt Romney presented himself as a clear alternative with the plan and the experience to get our country back on track," he said.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had earlier predicted that come Thursday morning that Romney's performance that would have been a game-changer would give him a boost in the polls and throw the race wide open, said, "Romney was the clear winner. He talked about his record of bringing people together to solve problems and his plan to create jobs and foster economic opportunity for all Americans."

"President Obama, on the other hand, was unable to articulate any plan for the future except another four years of the same failed, tax-hiking, government-growing policies that have resulted in 23 million Americans struggling for work, 47 million Americans on food stamps, and countless struggling small businesses. The candidates presented two very different visions for our country's future, and it's clear that Romney is the one who will bring the real recovery Americans need," the popular beefy Christie said.

Even humorist Bill Maher, a staunch Obama supporter, who contributed $1 million to a pro-Obama super-PAC, tweeted, "I can't believe I am saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a Teleprompter."

But be it as it may, as Carville, warned against going completely overboard, there are two more debates -- on October 16 and October 22 -- and lest anyone forgets, Ali won the return fight and left Frazier pretty badly bloodied from which Smoking Joe never did fully recover.

Aziz Haniffa