By Dana Milbank
DENVER — Fifteen minutes into Wednesday night’s debate here, Mitt Romney politely called the president of the United States a liar.
After President Obama accused his GOP rival of seeking to cut taxes on the wealthy — a stock line for the incumbent, and basically accurate — Romney deftly returned fire. “Look, I got five boys,” he said. “I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it. But that is not the case, all right?”
His chances slipping away in Ohio and other key points on the electoral map, Romney needed something — anything — to change the trajectory of a race that has turned against him. It was his best chance to alter the narrative of the contest and, with tens of millions of Americans watching, Romney gave one of the strongest performances of his campaign.
He said Obama picks “losers” with his energy policy, and he accused the president of being naive to the ways of corporate America: “Look, I’ve been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He went on to accuse Obama of decimating Medicare, of not meeting his promises to cut the deficit and of neglecting the unemployed.
Romney went into the exchange benefiting from low expectations. Polls found that by nearly 2 to 1, Americans expected Obama to best Romney in the debate. That meant Romney would do well just by holding his own.
By that standard, Romney certainly succeeded. While Obama’s answers were often lengthy and ponderous, Romney went a long way to defeat the impression that he is wooden and awkward. His attacks on the president were respectful but deft. He joined Obama deep in the weeds of policy and demonstrated a command of substance, even if he didn’t divulge much new about his policies. At times he sounded downright human — and even (can it be?) funny.
“I’m sorry, Jim,” Romney said to the moderator, PBS’ Jim Lehrer. “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. … I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
It’s not clear whether any of this is enough to shake up the race. Obama’s performance was lackluster, but he left the stage without having committed any major mishaps. He inexplicably refrained from pressing Romney on his biggest vulnerabilities, such as his income taxes and his “47 percent” remark, but Obama did force his rival to defend his proposals, which Obama said would “double down on the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess.”
Perhaps the best reason for Obama to be hopeful about reaction to the debate: The 90 minutes were so substantive and solid, with so many numbers and such lengthy dissections of policy disagreements, that many viewers may have found it dull — and therefore may not have noticed Romney cleaning Obama’s clock.
Romney, who reportedly had difficulty sleeping earlier in the week, was perspiring on his upper lip and chin. At times he sounded pedantic as he pleaded with the moderator and tried to enforce the rules: “Jim, the president began this segment, so I think I get the last word, so I’m going to take it, all right?”
But he sounded at ease as he joked about the debate occurring on Obama’s 20th wedding anniversary (“I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me”). And the “zingers” his aides had promised were delivered smoothly. “The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more — if you will, trickle-down government — would work,” he said.
The challenger increasingly got under Obama’s skin, and later in the debate it was the president quarreling with the moderator: “I had five seconds before you interrupted me.”
The debate proceeded, from the economy to the debt, to health care and to education, but Romney ended where he began. “You’re entitled to your own airplane and your house but not your own facts,” he told Obama as the debate wound down.
If Obama wishes to keep that airplane and house, he’ll have to do better than he did in Denver.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.