On Wednesday night, Mitt Romney attempted a hostile takeover of the presidential campaign, manhandling the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, and dominating President Obama. I wasn’t in the debate hall, so my impressions came from watching on television, as they did for most voters. Romney struck me as briskly efficient, affable, and (shock!) convincingly bipartisan in how he presented himself. Obama, at least until the final 30 minutes, was discursive, meandering, and seemed poorly prepared. It’s true that Romney didn’t offer the details that pundits are clamoring for. But someone tuning in for the first time would surely have come away feeling that Romney was the candidate with a firm grasp of what he wanted to do and Obama the guy slightly out of his depth.
Romney did two critical things very effectively. First, he parried all the obvious attacks that he knew would be coming his way. Often he did so in ways that were deeply misleading—attacking Obama from the left on Medicare reform and “Too Big to Fail.” Second, he left a strong impression that he, and not the president, had better command of the facts, the issues, and what could be done to set the economy on a better course. “Yes, we can help,” Romney said early on. “But we need to take a different path.” That’s exactly the case he needed to make, and he did it as well as anyone could reasonably have imagined.