Two men revealed.

Listen to the broadcast of Decision 2012 with Paul Gleiser, Monday, October 8, 2012.

For many, the first presidential debate marked the first opportunity to actually see President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney outside the hyper-controlled environments of campaign appearances, television ads or condensed, sound-bite media coverage. What they saw was revealing.

Conservatives have long complained that a fawning media and a hitherto very effective campaign apparatus have conspired to thwart any real vetting of Obama. The image of the cool and utterly articulate sophisticate has withstood through the president’s first term largely intact — despite  a record of chronic high unemployment, anemic economic growth, growing foreign policy problems and a feeling shared across the political divide that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Mitt Romney’s supporters have complained that the candidate has been too cautious, too slow to answer scathing and blatantly false television ads and has generally squandered the opportunity presented by an opposition that dares not run on its record.

Much of that criticism was effectively answered in the first presidential debate. On the stage in Denver, both men stood revealed.

Obama presented the picture of a man who would have rather been anywhere other than on the same stage with a well-prepared and articulate opponent. In sharp contrast to Romney, President Obama appeared unprepared, tired and devoid of a grasp on the issues that animate this campaign. The president’s vaunted gifts of oratory failed him miserably, leading even staunch supporters such as uber-liberal Bill Maher to actually say out loud that the president really does need a teleprompter.

At one point in the debate, the president actually tried to coax debate moderator Jim Lehrer into throwing him a lifeline by moving on to another topic.

For his part, Mitt Romney was clearly the alpha male. Without ever being snarky, petulant or disrespectful, Romney took control of the debate early and never relinquished. Romney was relaxed, pleasant of demeanor, in full command of the issues and the facts and articulate in his rebuttals of Obama’s campaign ad and stump speech rhetorical riffs. Where Obama said something with which Romney disagreed, Romney lost no time in calling the president out succinctly and effectively.

On multiple occasions, Romney, for all but the actual words, called Barack Obama  a liar to his face and looked presidential in the doing.

Romney stood toe-to-toe with Barack Obama and it was Obama that blinked.

For millions who skipped the GOP convention and were seeing Romney the man for the first time, they saw a man who looked more like the President of the United States than the actual president.

There are two debates between Obama and Romney yet to come in addition to the single debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Romney running mate Paul Ryan. It is unlikely that Obama will perform as badly in the final two debates as he did in the first one.

But is also unlikely that Mitt Romney will perform badly either. Romney proved that he’s got game. If the Obama campaign was in any way inclined to be dismissive of Romney, that inclination has been corrected. No amount of hubris could blind the Obama camp to the fact that their opponent is formidable in a one-on-one encounter.

As NBC’s Tom Brokaw observed, if Romney had fared as poorly against Obama as Obama fared against Romney,the election would now be over.

History suggests that debates between presidential candidates do very little to actually affect the eventual electoral outcome.

But if Romney can be effective in the remaining four weeks looking and acting like the winner that he clearly was in Denver on October 3, this could be one of those times that future pundits will point to as a notable and historically significant exception to conventional wisdom.

 

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