October 4, 2012 5:57 am

Time for an Obama game change

Debate in Denver could be a turning point for Romney campaign

Presidential debates are often the point at which the direction of a race gets crystallised. Until Wednesday night, Campaign 2012 was going Barack Obama’s way. But Mitt Romney’s commanding performance in Denver at the first of three televised debates may well have thrown it open again.

Where Mr Obama was long-winded and, at times, almost lethargic, his Republican opponent was fired up and concise. The fact-checkers will undoubtedly punch holes in much of what Mr Romney said – he was frequently economical with the truth.

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Edward Luce

But debates are mostly about theatre. By that measure, Denver wasn’t even close.

Mr Romney sounded like he had a plan to reinvigorate America – whether he does or not is besides the point. Mr Obama sounded like he was lecturing students at the end of a tiring day in faculty.

With 34 days to go, there are three reasons to believe the race may now start to tighten again.

First, contrary to conventional wisdom, debates can change the outcome of a race. In 2000, George W. Bush may well have clinched his victory (such as it was) in the debates with Democratic candidate Al Gore. The Democratic challenger John Kerry almost did the same to Mr Bush in 2004.

In depth

US elections 2012

staff fixes the presidential seal before US President Barack Obama gives a press conference

Republican candidate Mitt Romney takes on President Barack Obama in the race for the White House

If Mr Romney is able to rekindle his Denver spirit at the next two debates in New Jersey and Florida, then it is hard to believe it will not shift the numbers. Mr Obama’s margins are not so large that he can fritter them away.

Anyone watching the 90-minute debate will have concluded that Mr Romney had put in a lot of practice while Mr Obama had not. Most of the latter’s lines were reprised from his stock speech on the campaign trail. Many of the former’s were new.

Second, the media loves a tight race and can have a strong influence on floating voters. In Denver, perhaps for the first time in this campaign, both right-leaning Fox News and left-leaning MSNBC agreed on the verdict.

All of which is likely to shift the focus on to Mr Obama’s vulnerabilities, which in the past month had been pushed aside by Mr Romney’s cascade of self-inflicted wounds.

Mr Obama’s “play it safe” campaign will now come under much harsher scrutiny at a point where even the sleepiest of floating voters have half an eye open. It will no longer be safe for Mr Obama to play it safe.

Third, all presidents have bad days. But Mr Obama’s performance followed an equally flat moment a month ago when he delivered a bloodless acceptance speech in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention. Then, Mr Obama was overshadowed by Bill Clinton, whose mesmerising speech the previous night was impossible to emulate.

In Denver he was outclassed by Mitt Romney – a man whom until Wednesday evening, at least, was generally viewed as one of the worst nominees in years. One flop may be an accident. Two starts to look like a trend.

It will take several days to gauge whether Denver has changed the momentum of the race. In the meantime, it will serve as a reminder that nothing in politics is certain. Mr Romney came to the debate with low expectations and won. Mr Obama came in with low expectations of Mr Romney and lost. Now it is the president’s turn to raise his game. The next few days will be critical.

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