The US presidential election has suddenly become a nail-biter, after an unexpectedly strong showing Wednesday night by Republican challenger Mitt Romney, in the first of three debates against incumbent President Barack Obama.
“Romney’s performance is a game changer for the election,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington. “Republicans were on the verge of giving up on him and shifting their money to Senate races. His strong effort keeps him in the running and moves the race to a dead heat.”
Sixty-seven percent of Americans said Romney did the best job in the debate, while only 25 percent said Obama was better, according to a survey of 430 people taken immediately after the debate. The poll was conducted by CNN and ORC International, a global market research firm, and had a 4.5 percent margin of error.
“The margins are impressive,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which released a poll on Tuesday showing that 54 percent of voters expected Obama to win. He urged caution in reading too much into immediate reaction to the debate.
“Clearly the media reaction anecdotally is that the president did not win the debate, but we’ll get a better read, not necessarily a different one, if we wait several days,” he said.
For 90 minutes the two men sparred over the struggling US economy, unemployment, health care and other domestic issues, and the impact their two plans would have on middle class Americans. But Romney pushed his message to the forefront time and time again, positioning himself as a likeable, bipartisan candidate who can work with both political parties to solve problems Obama hasn’t been able to.
“Elections in which there’s an incumbent running, as there is in this one, there are two questions that really matter, that will determine the outcome,” said Brown. “First, does the guy deserve to keep his job, and if the answer is yes, nothing else matters. If voters think the incumbent doesn’t deserve to keep his job, then the key question is, is the other guy better, and that’s the question that’s before voters now.”
Both candidates hit the campaign trail in pivotal swing states Thursday, Romney in Virginia and Obama in Wisconsin. Their campaigns and respective political committees, meanwhile, scrambled overnight to produce new YouTube videos designed to highlight key moments of the debate.
The Republicans’ video, entitled “Smirk,” shows Obama’s facial expressions as Romney hammered away at contentious points throughout the evening.
The Democratic video, “What A Guy,” shows Romney repeatedly ignoring time cues and questions from moderator Jim Lehrer.
“I think it’s sort of a horserace now,” said John Hudak, a governance studies fellow at Brookings Institute. “Had Obama performed as well as Romney last night, the election would have been over. The lead would have been insurmountable. But that’s not what happened. We don’t know today as confidently as we thought we did yesterday what the outcome of the election will be.”