(Editor's note: Ted Van Dyk served as debate coordinator for several Democratic presidential candidates.)
Immediately after the end of tonight's televised Denver debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — and without exposure to post-debate TV talking-head and partisan spin — here is my take: Neither man "won" the debate or had a clear edge on the other. If either man gained a bit from the debate, it was Romney, since he appeared on equal footing with the incumbent president throughout the evening and because the debate moved to the forefront the economic issues which Romney wants to be Topic No. 1 in the election.
Both men were self-possessed, well-briefed, and assertive but respectful toward each other. Neither seemed more commanding than the other. Neither committed a gaffe or made an obvious misstatement that will cause him later grief from media or independent critics. This should not be surprising; both men have been campaigning and engaged in such debates since they ran as national candidates in 2008 — Romney then in an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination against Sen. John McCain. There was no memorable moment that viewers and media will later mark as a highlight of the debate.
Moderator Jim Lehrer, of the PBS Newshour, did a sometimes nervous but generally solid job of keeping the candidates to the economic/domestic policy agenda, which was the evening's agreed topic. There was no direct audience participation. The estimated viewing audience was between 40-50 million.
Going into the debate, most reputable national polls gave Obama something like a 3-point edge over Romney among likely voters, with a margin of error of about 3 points. That means the two were effectively tied, although my own instinct remains that Obama had a slight edge both nationally and in several key swing states that will decide the election. Coming out of the debate, I suspect, the numbers will be about the same but with Romney having solidified his close position.
The debate not only should have reinforced Obama and Romney supporters' confidence in their standardbearers. It should also have created a general feeling among independent voters that either could govern competently.
Now, a step backward to provide context.
A presidential election with an incumbent president on the ballot traditionally is a referendum on the incumbency. And, absent a major all-out war, the referendum is about the incumbent's management of the economy. No incumbent except Franklin Roosevelt has ever been re-elected with an election-year unemployment rate above 7.8 percent. That rate will remain above 8 percent until election day (and should rise early in 2013) and there are other weaknesses in the economy that make it seem worse.
To overcome this vulnerability, the Obama campaign has pursued the time-tested strategy of "Changing the Subject" — in this case attempting with some success to define Romney as a Gordon Gekko/Rick Santorum character unconcerned with ordinary citizens and associated with harsh social-issue positions. While Romney, pre-debate, had been trying to convince all Americans that they needed a new president to fix the economy, Obama had been trying to energize African Americans, Latinos, unmarried younger women, senior citizens, and other key constituencies around the thesis that change would threaten their interests.
In the most simplistic and traditional campaign terms, Romney has been pursuing the theme that it was "Time For a Change" while Obama has been saying "Don't Let Them Take It Away." These are recurring national-election themes of the past two centuries.
Romney benefited in Denver because discussion ranged across traditional economic and domestic issues on which he's based his time for a change campaign: jobs, tax policy, energy policy, debt, entitlements, health care, and education.
In their closing statements, the two candidates argued ably their differing views toward governance and the role of government.
Obama, once again, asserted himself as being in a long line of Democratic leaders who see federal action as central to everything taking place in society. Romney reaffirmed his emphasis on decentralization of power, reliance on private-sector economic initiatives, and the traditional Republican belief in a reduced federal role.
Obama could have put Romney away with a clear victory in Denver. He did not. Romney held his own, perhaps had a slight edge, and will get more attention for his daily campaign messages.
The Denver debate was the first in a series of four this month. Next up: a Biden-Ryan vice-presidential-candidate debate next week in Kentucky.