Analysis: Yes, Romney won the debate. Sort of

After months of running one of the most gaffe-plagued and widely mocked presidential campaigns in modern history, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivered a debate performance that may not have been a bona fide knockout, but was definitely a winner — at least with certain voters.

Romney looked relaxed, confident, even likable — all qualities he has struggled to convey in recent months. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, looked and sounded exhausted. That’s understandable, given the fact that he’s busy doing full-time jobs, including a pretty big one (you know, being president) and another pretty big one (you know, running for president).

While Romney’s answers flowed freely, the president often seemed to be searching for his. The end result? Romney enjoyed a clear victory, particularly with male voters, if the CNN instant poll tracking the reactions of undecided voters was any indication.

Here’s what I mean. Almost as often as he used the phrase “middle class” (one I predicted the president would use repeatedly), the president used the word “education.” The reason? It’s an issue that polls have shown resonates more strongly with women than with men. (A Pew Research study found 79 percent of women consider education “very important” in determining their vote this fall.)

In fact, CNN’s instant poll tracking the reactions of undecided voters throughout the televised debate, which was visible to all viewers, showed that undecided female voters reacted extremely positively whenever President Obama mentioned “education,” as well as when he touched upon the benefits to families from “Obamacare.” (Health care is another issue on which female voters place greater emphasis on than male voters.)

Similarly, whenever Romney mentioned the word “jobs” — which he mentioned about as many times as the president mentioned “middle class” — male undecided voters appeared to react extremely positively, much more so for him than they did when the president discussed the economy.

I have written before of President Obama’s struggle with male voters, particularly white male voters. The bad news for the Obama campaign is the president likely didn’t win them over during the first debate.

The good news for the president’s campaign? There actually wasn’t much from last night. Romney was dubbed the clear winner in postdebate polls. But there are these silver linings:

One: There are two more matchups with Mitt Romney.

Two: Women voters, who are largely credited with keeping the Obama campaign afloat so far, are unlikely to abandon him after tonight’s performance.

The president’s delivery, tone and body language clearly left a lot to be desired (even his own team is unlikely to deny that), but he hit a number of high notes that resonate with women. That doesn’t mean the president “won” with women tonight, but in a campaign, not losing a significant part of your voting base to your opponent can be just as important as winning over additional voters.

Keli Goff is The Root’s political correspondent.

Distributed by the Washington Post-Bloomberg News Service

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