All of this suggests that the presidential race changed in some fundamental way after the first debate. It can certainly change again, but it is silly to deny that the first debate has been more significant than any one event in the 2012 election.
What happened? For one thing the debate exposed what many Republicans suspected, namely that some of Obama’s support was shallow, rooted in habit or from failure to consider Romney might be a viable alternative. Even in the heady days after the Democratic National Convention Obama did not reach more than 50 percent in the RCP averages or even in any week of Gallup tracking polls.
Recall that virtually the entire Obama strategy was aimed to discredit and delegitimize Romney as a candidate. The avalanche of negative ads in the summer, however, failed (barely) to do so. With Romney’s extraordinary debate performance, it now becomes nearly impossible to vilify him. Unfortunately for Obama he’s got no Plan B. He never devised an impressive second-term agenda. He has either unpopular (Obamacare) or unhelpful (raise taxes) or small beans (hire 100,000 teachers) proposals. Romney has therefore been able to deploy his “we can’t afford four more years” argument quite effectively.
And finally, as many of us suspected, foreign policy has become a front-burner issue. The attack on the Benghazi Consulate has now resonated with mainstream media and has become a story about competence and credibility. This may not have contributed to Romney’s rise, but it will assist him in holding off Obama.
Obama has two debates and just over three weeks to present two things to the voters: A revised and more nuanced image of Mitt Romney, and a constructive, values-driven and emotionally satisfying Plan B.
Methinks if he simply sticks to more of the same, he might be a one-term president.