There’s no need to detain ourselves with any questions over who won last night’s first television debate: the President was trounced. Curiously for a man capable of inspiring a generation, and running the most effective political campaign in History, Barack Obama knows how to look completely uninterested in politics. Indeed, the lugubrious, professorial suit who turned up yesterday looked and sounded like Andrew Mitchell after a bad day at work, short on patience, condescending and out of touch.
Mitt Romney is right back in this race after a terrible month. Edward Luce nailed three reasons why: first, presidential debates really can swing an election; second, the media loves a tight race, and portraying Romney as the Comeback Kid suits everyone other than the Democrats, which is a lot of Americans; and third, after an almost equally flat convention speech last month, it may even suggest an element of complacency in a President who has lost some of his fire.
Naturally we ought not to read too much into one evening. Many of the American people won’t have watched last night. Obama retains crucial advantages among Hispanics, blacks, women and the young, and recent polling in the swing states suggested a slightly increasing advantage. He ought to thank his advisers that they went so hard after Romney at the outset, portraying him successfully as an asset-stripper who couldn’t be trusted. And in the past Obama has shown a willingness to fight when down, and spring back from moments of adversity during campaigns, whether over the Jeremiah Wright scandal or his remarks over “guns and religion”.
In and of itself, last night certainly won’t win Mitt Romney the presidency. But campaigns are about momentum, and at the very least Obama’s has been halted. In the next two debates, he needs to come out fighting, and show not just the mastery of detail that he was at pains to convey last night, but the passion and zeal and charisma that won him 2008. Actually turning up would be a good start.