October 4, 2012 7:21 pm

Debate re-energises Romney support base

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Presidential Debate, Romney©Getty

In the immediate aftermath of the first presidential debate, Barack Obama’s top advisers huddled for a short time with throngs of journalists to make the case that the president had won the night, before quietly slipping away.

Like happy drinkers in a bar long after closing time, however, Mitt Romney’s advisers did not want to go home, lingering for more than an hour after the 90-minute debate, to celebrate their candidate’s performance.

The so-called “spin room” traditionally used after such encounters is an absurd ritual in many respects, as the supporters of each side hold court to – surprise, surprise! – tell the media how their candidate won.

But Wednesday night in Denver was different. While Mr Romney may not have reset the presidential race, he has re-energised a support base that was verging on despair about his chances in the November 6 election.

All the talk about enthusiasm among Republicans waning, the gap with Mr Obama widening and, most importantly, about the big money shifting from his campaign to Republican congressional races has been silenced.

“Tens of millions of voters saw him tonight for the first time outside of 30-second attack ads, and got the real measure of the man,” said Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser.

The Obama camp, under a barrage of questions about what even supporters described as a lethargic, under-par performance, had a more practical, albeit defensive, response.

“What is the Romney path to victory? Is Ohio now fundamentally different from what it was last night? I reject that,” said David Plouffe, a senior presidential adviser. Mr Plouffe’s comment was a reminder that Mr Romney still has an enormous struggle to put together a string of winning states required to take the White House under the electoral college system.

Mr Obama’s lead in pivotal swing states like Ohio has been even greater than the slight but consistent edge he has opened up over the past month in national polls.

Mr Obama’s advantages, with his ground game and its army of volunteers within America’s changing electorate, with women and minorities like Hispanics are likely to remain intact.

At a rally in Denver, Mr Obama started to mount a fightback, contrasting “the real Romney” with the “guy on stage last night”. It is a theme that Mr Obama is expected to pursue in coming days.

Mr Romney may also have opened up problems for himself on policy issues like tax and care for the elderly, taking positions that Obama campaign officials say they will be able to exploit in coming weeks.

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Mr Romney plans to cut tax rates across the board by 20 per cent, but insisted at the debate that government revenues would be maintained, the deficit would be unaffected and wealthy taxpayers would not benefit.

“We are going to hold Mr Romney accountable for these things and make him justify them,” said David Axelrod, Mr Obama’s chief campaign strategist.

But the challenger’s energetic and aggressive performance, in which he dominated the president for large parts of a debate, has at least laid the ground for a final push to the polls, only a month away.

“[Voters] saw somebody ready to run this thing to the finish line,” said Senator John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota.

While Mr Obama looked down for long periods and glumly wrote notes to himself, Mr Romney was alive and engaged almost to the point of giddiness, looking up in triumph at intervals during his moments of note taking.

Mr Obama spoke for about four minutes longer during their one-and-a-half hours on stage but Mr Romney used about 500 words more, a measure of his greater intensity throughout. Mr Obama orated, often soporifically, talking as if he was at a press conference, while Mr Romney, as the occasion demanded, debated and scored points.

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According to the old political consultant’s rule – which holds that you can judge the winner of the debate by watching with the television sound down to gauge the body language – Mr Romney clearly prevailed.

Issues which Mr Obama has used to attack Mr Romney, like the challenger’s leaked comments about the 47 per cent of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes, were not raised, baffling and angering many of the president’s backers.

Mr Obama’s advisers at first brushed aside this omission but later recalibrated. “I understand that our strong supporters feel very, very strongly that we should have ploughed in on the 47 per cent,” said Mr Axelrod.

Stuart Stevens, Mr Romney’s chief strategist, under fire recently over his candidate’s campaign, was upbeat, saying the challenger had finally forced Mr Obama out from under the cover of “his one billion dollar campaign”.

“I don’t think Mr Obama had a particularly bad debate. He has had a bad four years and he just can’t speak to his record,” he said.

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