Chait hails the return of “Massachusetts Mitt” – something that Obama didn’t appear to have seen coming:
Tonight’s debate saw the return of the Mitt Romney who ran for office in Massachusetts in 1994 and 2002. He was obsessive about portraying himself as a moderate, using every possible opening or ambiguity – and, when necessary, making them up – to shove his way to the center. Why he did not attempt to restore this pose earlier, I cannot say. Maybe he can only do it in debates. Or maybe conservatives had to reach a point of absolute desperation over his prospects before they would give him the ideological space. In any case, he dodged almost every point in the right wing canon in a way that seemed to catch Obama off-guard.
Tomasky agrees that Romney “suddenly became the moderate Massachusetts governor again”:
There’s no use pretending this doesn’t shake up the race. It surely does. How much, none of us knows. The Democratic spinners need to get busy on the fact-checking front. But this is mostly about Obama. Romney caught him totally flatfooted with the Rockefeller Republican move, and Obama didn’t know how to respond. If this is the new Romney, he’d better figure out how.
Seth Masket wonders how this changes the race:
[T]he pivot to the center that had been conspicuously absent from Romney’s campaign this year finally happened, in the space of 90 minutes. Now, in the short run, this presents an advantage — Romney’s new stances were obviously much more popular than his old ones, and the president had difficulty critiquing views that were so similar to his own. But I’m wondering about the costs of this pivot: a) Does he alienate some conservative activists, who have long worried about his ideological bona fides? b) Does this reinforce his image as a flip-flopper? Possible answers: a) Conservative activists will probably suck it up and be grateful for a nominee who could stick it to the president in a debate. b) There was plenty of flip-flopper material there for Obama to exploit, but he largely didn’t, although I’m sure his surrogates will be all over that for the remainder of the week.
Yglesias notes that the debate win may have been easier for Romney to pull off given that Lehrer didn’t ask questions about more divisive issues:
There was no real talk of the environment, of LGBT equality, of labor unions, of monetary policy, of the regulatory state outside of Dodd-Frank, of immigration, of family life or women’s role in the workforce or any of a host of other issues where it’s difficult to paper over ideological voids. But on the issues they did talk about, Romney succeeded in portraying himself as someone who’s considerably less conservative than John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, or the Mitt Romney who we’ve seen a lot of over the past 18 months. Whether you believe that’s the Mitt Romney who’d show up in the White House in 2013 if he wins in November is a separate question, but the guy we saw tonight is a much more appealing figure than the guy who was on the trail all summer.
Daniel Gross was baffled by how out of touch with the economy both candidates were:
I’m not particularly concerned with who won the debate, although if I were forced to declare a winner, I’d say Romney did. What I am concerned with was the poor quality of the debate. There was plenty of talk about the working poor and the unemployed, but they were used mostly as props. The crucial issue for the next four years is how to make economic growth work for everyone, how to get people back to work, and how to find and deploy the resources necessary to make our systems function well. I heard a lot more discussion of Dodd-Frank and Simpson-Bowles on Wednesday night than I did on those topics.
How Walter Russell Mead sees Romney’s performance:
Governor Romney didn’t win the election last night, he just stopped losing it. That may not last; the road to the election is still very long and we are more likely than not to see momentum shift back and forth some more. But for committed Democrats who, with a lot of encouragement from their friends in the MSM, were already measuring the drapes for a second term, the night was a shock. Governor Romney emerged as a much stronger candidate, and President Obama as a much weaker one, than the narrative of this campaign to date would lead one to believe.
Millman thought Obama held his ground:
If you watched it without sound – or, even better, if you didn’t speak English, so you could hear the sound but couldn’t understand the words – I have to believe Romney won by a mile. But if you didn’t watch the debate, and read the transcript, what you’d see is the following. When Romney attacked, Obama generally had a policy response – some more persuasive than others, but the response was generally policy-related. When Obama attacked, Romney would generally deny that he took the position that was being attacked.
Romney’s palpable zest for the debate made him look like a guy ready to take charge, and the President’s demeanor suggested some willingness to let him do so. But his refusal to stand his ground on anything – and the marked contrast with the President in that regard – made him sound like a snake-oil salesman.
Clive Crook differs:
[Romney] gave the impression of having the facts at his command. Often enough that was a false impression, but Obama never came close to showing it. The president was stammering and hesitant, and frequently looked out of his depth. Romney’s performance wasn’t brilliant, just good, but that made it brilliant relative to expectations. The greater shock, amplifying Romney’s success, was that Obama was so bad.
Joan Walsh expects that Romney didn’t move his likeability numbers:
He made it clear that he was Lehrer’s boss early, and treated him disrespectfully. For a guy Americans don’t find likeable, he wasn’t terribly likeable.
And John Dickerson wonders whether Mitt can repeat last night’s performance:
This was Mitt Romney’s best night of the campaign. Now he has to sustain it. In the past, debates haven’t stuck with voters for long. There wasn’t one Romney moment that voters could take home and replay at work the next day. Romney seemed competent and in command, but how does that get passed around to other voters? Perhaps it’s enough that many voters who were looking at him for the first time didn’t see an indifferent millionaire. But his reputation for ideological malleability may help the Obama team argue that Romney is reinventing himself again.
(Photo: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. By Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)