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Debate Watch: Obama Eats Up the Clock, But Romney Sets the Agenda

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During the first Presidential debate last night, CNN ran a clock on screen showing how long each candidate had spoken in total. It reminded me of a time-of-possession clock in a football game. In a game, if one team burns more of the clock, it can mean that they’re controlling the ball, defending their lead, denying their opponents the opportunity to score.

Sometimes. But sometimes it just means they’re running a slogging ground game, while their opponent scores faster and more often by putting the ball in the air.

By CNN’s clock, President Barack Obama spoke for more than three minutes longer than Mitt Romney. But it didn’t feel like he said more. In the first debate of the 2012 campaign, Romney was sharper, more animated, quicker. Two candidates were on stage, but only one seemed to be competing. Obama spent more time speaking but not more time talking. You could have held a whole other debate within the time he spent on “Aaaahs” and “Ummms” and thoughtful pauses.

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Maybe this was Obama’s design: seeing a lead in the polls, the campaign didn’t want to risk mistakes or sacrifice likability. No direct attacks! No sarcasm! No condescension! Maybe it decided it did not want to risk winning the election by working too aggressively to win the debate.

In which case, mission accomplished. Here’s the thing about debates: you win them by debating. By engaging, sparring, refuting and making sharp, memorable arguments. That doesn’t have to mean cheap stunts and canned zingers. It just means laying out a focused case. Staying above the fray is often admirable, but a debate is a fray. If you’re above it, you’re out of it.

The old saw in TV debates is that you can tell the winner by watching with the sound off. Romney looked spirited and eager. Obama, who spent much of the debate looking down at his notepad, was low-key, mild and diffident. Maybe the intended effect was dignified, but with the candidates framed mostly in tight head shots, he often looked chastened instead–gaze downward in split screen, with an opponent looking in his direction, eagerly pressing the case. (In the heavily negotiated debates, the campaigns are, or should be, conscious of the camera framing.) Other times, he looked to Jim Lehrer, as if giving a press conference.

In part, Romney succeeded because he was ready to step into the vacuum left by Lehrer, of PBS, who moderated the debate only in the loosest sense of the word. He didn’t question the candidates so much as raise topics: Tell us about your differences on social security! Talk about healthcare! Say some things about the debt, or government, or really whatever you’d like! Lehrer didn’t direct, challenge, engage. We could barely hear his fluttery objections as the debate steamrolled past him.

That left the candidates free to set their own terms, and Romney, who has gone all in on debate prep for weeks, knew precisely the ones he wanted to set. He positioned himself in the center: suddenly, he was the candidate who didn’t want to lower taxes for the rich and spoke kindly of the safety net. (The “47%” comments? Not raised by Lehrer or Obama, and likewise for “You didn’t build that” and many other recent campaign flashpoints.) And he came with one-two-three lists and ready statistics–lots of numbers that may have conveyed the impression of specificity without offering specifics on, say, his own tax-policy or healthcare math. Ironically, one of Obama’s strongest attacks came on Medicare–a subject Romney, amazingly, raised voluntarily in a question on Social Security.

I’m not actually sure it was such a great performance by Romney–I doubt an undecided voter left it with a clear sense of what he would do if elected–but he was the only one performing. (Here’s where you can say that “performing” is beneath the office of the presidency. But as Bill Clinton showed at the DNC, using TV to make a clear case is part of the job, and it doesn’t have to mean dumbing anything down.) Romney went into the debate like a man with a to-do list; Obama went into it like a man with a to-don’t list.

I can’t pretend to know how or if any debate will change votes. Debates are most intensely watched and judged by decided voters, who want to hear their beliefs argued forcefully. (Case in point: nowhere were the wails over Obama’s chill demeanor louder than on MSNBC’s post-debate liberal panel.) Undecided voters may get turned off by exactly the same aggressive tactics. Maybe there’s a long game here, some 3-D chess that’s utterly beyond me. (The best way to tell: if Team Obama does the same thing next debate. Any bets?)

Maybe. But the short game last night was Romney’s. The Obama who came on stage seemed, most charitably, like someone who was handicapped by the burden of playing it safe to protect a lead. The danger is that, by the time the last debate comes around, he may not have that burden anymore.

Here, my standard disclosure: I voted for Obama in ’08 and plan to do so again in ’12. To paraphrase Walter Mondale: most people who write about politics have voting preferences—the difference is they won’t tell you theirs and I just did. To read my fuller thoughts on political writing and disclosure, click here.